Posted from: Beijing
“So… how many people are coming?”
“Seventy.” Marta, looks up from the guest list and gives me her patented Czech pause. The pause, when Marta does it, means one of three things:
– “That was borderline idiocy.”
– “I have no idea,” and,
– “Hark, there be a shit storm on the horizon.”
D, all of the above.
When Ben asked us to throw a Christmas party at the house he just finished building, air escaped from small perforations in our heads and in one of many moments of weakness, we agreed. As we turned around to leave his place, the word “Doom” wrote itself out in the cloud formations. But we were already debating where the hell in Beijing we were going to order a turkey.
Ben’s house is not so much a house as it is four houses. Situated around a courtyard badly-designed in the traditional ancient style, the buildings have columns and filigree windows – a temple. Ben points out the hand-crafted carvings and leaf around the eaves, beaming. “It’s real gold.” Buddha groans.
On the car ride home, Marta says the word “impractical” thirty or forty times a sentence. Real gold, and bad heating. The kitchen has an entire building to itself. The fridge has room for three or four sticks of butter, if you stack them in right. Mostly, the bedrooms are in the eastern complex. The bathrooms are in the west.
“I designed it myself,” says Ben.
Buddha slaps his forehead.
Russel, an old friend of mine from the Siping Shaolin Academy, moved in with me the other week. I recruited him to the project. After Christmas, he assures me in that pleasantly harrassed way of his, he is taking a contract out on my head.
Up to his elbows in potato salad, Russel wonders how much extra he would have to offer to get them to bring back my tongue as a trophy. When I say “up to his elbows”, I am not being cute. Russel, his upper body halfway consumed as he leans into the industrial trash can we have filled with Marta’s recipe, is drowning. He heaves, trying to get the mayonnaise spread around evenly. He pulls. He looks like he’s churning butter.
“Fuck this,” he says, and tosses the spoon. It is badly bent. He uses his hands.
While Marta and I did fudge, and bourbon balls, and sugar cookies, while we spiced illegal amounts of stuffing, tasted the pasta, baked the candied yams, cut orange rinds for the hot wine, boiled carrots and contemplated suicide, Russel was chopping. And wiring the speakers. But most importantly, Russel was babysitting Ben.
Ben is an enigma. Marta and I have spent hours wondering how someone with so little grip on cause and effect managed to make the amount of money he has. He is Chinese, over thirty and unmarried. An enigma. Ben says he has a furniture factory.
“Have you ever actually seen him work?”
Marta thinks. “No, actually. He teaches ice-hockey to kids a couple of days a week.”
“So where’s this alleged furniture factory?”
Marta shrugs. “I’ve never seen it.”
“Maybe he’s part of an international crime syndicate.”
We look at each other.
Ben, after all, needs help buying water.
“They didn’t have any,” he reports, as Marta and I stand in his kitchen vainly wiggling the tap. It’s the day of the party, and the water in the entire house has cut out.
“The supermarket didn’t have water?”
“No, they don’t sell tap water. But don’t worry about it. It’ll be back sometime.”
“You tried to buy tap water at the supermarket?”
“What?” Ben looks defensive, petulant.
We look at each other.