NAN had been ill for several days, though he went to work as usual. The trip to Iowa had plunged him into a depression, also a bone-deep exhaustion. In a way he hated Beina, who had changed so much, or was so different from whom he’d imagined, that she had shattered his vision of her. He felt sick at heart, but he began to be extraordinarily considerate to his wife. Pingping was alarmed by his sudden change and urged him to get some medical attention-at least go see an herbalist, who wouldn’t charge a lot. She feared he might be having an early midlife crisis, a sort of male menopause. But he replied, “I have a heart problem no cardiologist can diagnose and no drug can cure. “

Despite his despondency, he resumed working on his poetry, with greater effort. He mailed out another batch of poems to a small journal called Yellow Leaves, which he had noticed published some Asian American authors. He had no hope of acceptance and just submitted his work routinely. He called Dick and told him that he wouldn’t be coming to study with him because he preferred to stay with his family. Dick said this would be a huge loss to Nan, who was already forty-one, and that it would be too late to develop his talent if he didn’t concentrate or make the necessary sacrifice soon. Nan thanked him, but was adamant about his decision. He knew that from this point on he’d have to be on his own, and that probably Dick and he would drift apart in the future, since as a famous poet Dick always had a crowd around him. In other words, Nan would have to accept isolation as his condition and write for no audience, speaking to emptiness.

One afternoon the phone rang at the Gold Wok; Nan picked it up and heard Danning Meng’s hearty voice. “Hey, Nan Wu, I want to see you,” his friend said.

“Where are you?” Nan was thrilled.

“I’m in Washington, D.C. “

“Doing what?”

“Attending a writers’ conference and doing a tour. A playwright was supposed to come originally, but she had a stroke, so I filled in for her.”

“Can you come to Atlanta?”

“Of course. That’s why I’m calling.”

Danning would stay with the Wus for two days, then go on to catch up with the rest of the Chinese writers’ delegation in Oxford, Mississippi, to see the town, the prototype for the capital of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, and to visit the great novelist’s home, which was said to have been the biggest house in his hometown when he was alive. Both Nan and Pingping were excited about their friend’s visit. That night they tidied up their home a little, though, exhausted by a whole day’s work, they couldn’t do as much cleaning as they wished. Danning would stay in Nan ‘s room. Nan was happy to give up his bed to sleep two nights with Pingping, but she frowned when he grinned at her meaningfully. Despite loving him, she didn’t like sharing her bed with him, since he’d turn in late, often in the wee hours, and snore loudly. She had to rest well to work the next day and didn’t want to have sex too often.

Danning arrived two days later and thanked Nan on behalf of Mrs. Liu for having mailed her husband’s ashes to their daughter in Canada. He presented Pingping with four of his books, which didn’t impress her much, but she gave him a hug for the gesture. She still couldn’t enjoy his fiction. Over the years she had read a number of his novellas and short stories published in magazines and disliked most of them, so she knew what kind of books these were. Despite her low opinion of his writings, she was glad and hospitable since he had come all the way to see them. Also, she was happy in Nan ‘s happiness.

Danning was very impressed by the Wus’ restaurant and brick ranch, and by the lake in their backyard. He walked around the house and said to Nan, “Your home has great feng shui. Look at those trees, absolutely gorgeous. And you own them all. I won’t have a blade of grass in Beijing that I can call mine after we move into an apartment building next spring.” At the sight of the waterfowl he exclaimed, “My goodness, what a peaceful haven you have here. How nice this all is! I could never dream of living in such a tranquil spot. Nan, you’re a lucky man and have everything you want. I’m burning with envy.” He sounded sincere, genuinely moved.

At lunch he told Nan, “Your life here is so clean and decent. You made the right choice to remain in America. I wish I hadn’t gone back and had stayed to make an honest living like yours.”

“But you’ve become a famous author.”

“Others can say that, but I know what I’ve accomplished- nothing. Serious writings are a kind of extension of one’s life. But I’ve just been wasting my life and making noises that will disappear in the blink of an eye. What price fame? Just more troubles. The only meaningful thing, the only salvation, is your work, but significant work is impossible in China at present. Besides the censorship, the country’s too hectic, and everyone is in a rush to grab off something. People are all obsessed with getting rich, and money has become God.” He sighed, looking tearful.

Nan said, “You don’t know how hard Pingping and I have worked.”

” Of course I can imagine that. But you got your reward. You have your own business and your home, and even two cars. You’re a solid businessman. Here you do hard work but live comfortably. What’s more, Taotao is a fine boy, and you won’t have to worry about his education. My daughter is going to take the entrance exams for high school next spring, and she has already started cramming day and night. She loves painting, but we have to dissuade her from planning to major in the fine arts at college. At most she can specialize in ad designing. By contrast, your son can follow his own interests, his own heart. This is a fundamental difference in our children’s lives. “

“My son is doing well because his mother has helped him every day.”

“You’re such a lucky man. Your wife is not only pretty and hardworking but also loyal.” Somehow Danning’s voice choked. He swallowed and wiped his teary eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Nan asked with a start.

Danning heaved a long sigh. “Sirong just had an affair with a colleague of hers. Nowadays it’s so common, even fashionable, to have a lover outside your marriage.”

Nan ventured, “Does she mean to leave you?”

“No, that’s the hardest part. My daughter is very attached to her, more than to my parents, so we have to stay in this marriage.”

Later Nan thought about their conversation. He knew Danning had told only his side of the story. He was sure that his friend had seen other women, at least some of the girls in the bars, hair salons, and nightclubs. Indeed, his own philandering might have driven his wife to have the affair, and nobody but himself should be to blame.

The next day Danning wanted Nan to take him to Chinatown. Ping-ping again asked Shubo to stand in for Nan, so after dinner the two friends drove west along Buford Highway toward Chamblee. Entering Norcross, they saw a road gang in orange vests and caps gathering garbage on the roadside, where stood a blue van hauling a trailer loaded with shovels, rakes, and barrels. Danning wondered who these young men were, still working at this hour. “Prisoners,” Nan told him.

“This is a good way to reform them. I didn’t know American prisoners also work.”

” Some of them do. I once saw a prison detail planting trees and flowers.”

The sight of the convicts reminded Nan of their mutual friend Hansong, who had gone crazy and shot an old man eight years earlier in Massachusetts after he heard that his girlfriend had disappeared in Tiananmen Square. Nan knew Hansong hadn’t completed his prison term when he was deported three years ago. He asked Danning, “Do you happen to know how Hansong is doing?”

“You haven’t heard he’s married?”

“You mean, he was released from jail?”

“Yes, but he can’t find a regular job in China. Nobody wants to take English lessons from him, so he’s been a freelance translator.” “He was a smart man. What a waste.”

Nan felt sad as a lull set in. The traffic light turned red and he hit the brakes. Somehow he caught every red light today, which gave him a premonition that there might be trouble this evening.

As they passed a shopping center near the Korean supermarket, Danning cried, “Stop! Double back. I saw a strip bar over there. Let’s go have some fun.”

Nan hesitated but jammed on the brakes. He did a U-turn and pulled into the plaza. The parking lot was full, so they left their car behind the building of the strip club, in front of an adult movie theater. Nan wondered if he should go in first to scout this place out, but his friend was already heading toward the bar’s front entrance, so he followed him. The second they stepped in, a brawny, hard-faced man boomed at them, “Five dollars a head.”

Nan gave him a ten. It was foggy and clamorous inside. They took a table near the passageway to a small room blazoned with vip on its door, since all the tables in front of the dance platforms were occupied. From where they sat they could watch the performances from the side. Along the walls stood some Mexican workers wearing cowboy hats and nursing beers. They seemed reluctant to take a seat at the tables, which would amount to inviting a girl to do a lap dance or table dance. A short-haired barmaid in a lavender skong came and asked Nan and Danning, “What would you like to drink?”

Though he’d already downed a few glasses of wine at dinner, Dan-ning ordered a shot of bourbon and a mug of lager. Nan asked for a Molson. He was afraid his friend might have had a drop too much, but he said nothing. Among the tables several topless girls were doing lap dances. In a corner, a girl in a blue bikini raised her bony rear end, swaying it at a stocky Mexican man, who, holding a tall can of beer, seemed intimidated but couldn’t retreat further, his back already against the wall. On the string of her briefs several dollar bills were flapping as she thrust her backside at him. She was so thin that her ribs showed. Unlike the standing Mexicans, the white men sitting at the tables seemed at ease, though naked girls were wriggling in front of them or gyrating on their laps. None of them looked excited, and at most some were amused.

With a twang the metallic music resumed, and two young women wearing high heels went onto the central platform and began dancing. One of them jumped up and gripped a chrome pole and with one leg spread out revolved around it. The din was so deafening that Nan ‘s eardrums itched.

He was giddy, never having been to such a place before. He had passed this club every Monday morning on his way to the World Bookstore to buy the Sunday newspaper and had thought that it must be stylish in here and that at most the girls would be topless when they stripped. Now he was astonished to see that some of them didn’t have a stitch on, and that a few women, already over thirty, wagged their wide, ungainly bottoms tagged with a bunny’s tail as they walked around bartending. He looked at Danning, who was ecstatic, grinning, his eyes aglitter. Danning tapped the table gently with both palms as if playing a drum to accompany the music. The room looked so hazy and so crowded that Nan felt as if he were in a ship’s cabin.

A tall brunette came and asked them while batting her dark eyes, “Would yuh care for a lap dance?” Her accent betrayed that she must be a recent Eastern European immigrant.

Nan lowered his head and saw a tattooed butterfly on her inner thigh. “How much?” he mumbled, and felt his cheeks flushing.

“Ten bucks.”

Before Nan could say another word, Danning banged the greasy tabletop with the heel of his palm and crowed, “Yes, dance for us.”

The girl turned around, swaying her hips, and began slipping out of her bra little by little. Nan lifted his eyes and saw her youthful breasts, the nipples erect and the areolas pink, flecked with a few pimples; he forced his eyes farther up, to her face. She was affectedly ogling him, the tip of her tongue wiping her teeth and lips, while she raised her rump at Danning, wagging it from side to side. She craned her neck, gently kissed Nan below his ear. He wondered if she’d left a smudge there. She groaned in a whisper, “Don’t you want me?” Smiling, she opened her mouth, a tiny pearl sitting at the center of her tongue. Nan was breathing hard, his mouth dry, and he had no idea how to answer. He wondered whether the pearl had been fixed to her tongue permanently. How could she eat with that thing in her mouth? It wouldn’t be easy for her to brush her teeth either. What did it stand for? Why did it have to be kept in there? As he was speculating, she lifted her upper body a little and began grinding her behind against Danning’s lap. The music went faster and noisier while her gyration turned wilder. Danning’s laughter grew louder and louder as her bottom kept revolving.

“Ouch!” she cried, and straightened up. “No tarching!”

Danning laughed, baring his buckteeth. “Keep going!” he grunted.

She resumed lap dancing, but a moment later stopped again. She looked annoyed and sputtered out at Danning, “If you tarch me again I’m gonna tell security.”

Danning grinned and kissed the tips of his plump fingers. “You’re delicious,” he said.

Nan glanced at the front entrance, where a big hulk of a man, wearing a flattop, was looking in their direction, flexing his corded arms and bulging pectorals; the top of his right ear was missing. But Danning was already too befuddled to care. He said in Chinese to the girl, who refused to dance anymore, “You, little whore, you want to throw me out? Do you know who I am? Look at this face.” He pointed at his nose. “Don’t you know me? I’m a major novelist, an award winner, famous in the whole country. Give us a good dance. We want the same service for our money. You danced for that man longer and better just now. Why don’t you smile at us like you smiled at him?” He pointed at a hairless white man, whose eyes were half closed while a girl leaned supine over him with her arms raised backward, hooked around his neck.

“Stick to English,” the lap dancer fired back. “I don’t know Korean.”

Nan was frightened. He stood up and handed a twenty-dollar bill to her. “Take zis, miss. Keep zer change. I’m sawrry, he’s drunk. I’m taking him away.”

The girl stretched out her right leg and pulled open the elastic string around her thigh, with which some singles and fives were already attached. Nan inserted the twenty, but a bill fell on the floor.

He picked it up and put that in as well. She smiled and gave him a peck on the cheek, whispering, “Thank you, sweetie.” Then she went away to the bar counter to join the girls perching on the mushroom seats.

Danning took out a business card that bore his official titles as a committee member of the Beijing Writers’ Association and an adjunct professor at Peking University. “Let me give her this, all right?” he said to Nan, grinning, then turned to the girl.

“Please, let’s go!” Nan grabbed his upper arm.

The hulky bouncer came and helped Nan support Danning toward the door. The business card dropped on the floor, faceup.