THEN THE GAME BEGINS
Oindrila Gupta, December 7, 2022
The man who invented Mah Jong is a hero. Yeah, definitely a hero. He saves people’s lives, people like me who have nothing good to count on at night. You know I used to think that playing Mah Jong was only for grandparents, and a young woman like me would have better things to do. But now I know this game is for everyone, for all the people in China. I wonder what Chairman Mao thought of Mah Jong during the Cultural Revolution, maybe he tried to stamp it out. Very unwise I think.
I feel a much stronger person since I started playing Mah Jong. And you know what’s more, it has brought about an affair.
Let me explain to you why I like gambling—and now gambling with my marriage as well. For the last three years I have spent every day answering telephones in my office in a perfect polite voice, answering every query with a smile, and every evening cooking dinner in an empty home, waiting for my husband Hui to walk through the door. God, how boring my life sounds—don’t you think? So by the time he arrives home the dinner I have laboured over for him is cold and unappealing, so I almost always eat alone. Then I watch crappy TV on our crappy television set until Hui opens the door, weary as always. He seems to have put on weight recently, I wonder whether he’s been drinking too much beer after work with his colleagues, or perhaps his cheap shirt is just too tight? You know he is not that handsome or special, after all. He is just an ordinary man, now I realise. Disappointing or not, that’s the truth.
You know I haven’t made a single friend in this city of eighteen million people. And why is that? I used to think I was one of the many victims of old Confucius’ rules—he says the good virtue of a woman is to belong to her husband; the rest is not worth consideration. I thought I was such a modern woman—pah! What did I know? What stupidity! You know, I started to ask myself why I was even living in this big city with my plastic modern flat, my tired and absent husband. There is a whole city full of possibilities out there, and I was sat here at home watching cheap soap operas day after day. My body was getting old and tired and flabby, my mind loose and lazy—I needed something to shock me into living, really living.
Then one night, I stayed up late listening to a new CD, an album by Nick Cave. There is this one song called “Nobody’s Baby Now”. The lyrics go like this: “This is her dress that I loved best, with the blue violets across the breast. And these are my many letters torn to pieces by her long-fingered hand, I was her cruel-hearted man…” When I heard those lines, my tears flowed out freely. I played the song again and again that night, as if on a constant loop. Then I dried my eyes and made a decision. I decided to give up my young-housewife life. I needed something to happen for a change and you know even if it causes a small disaster—I’m ready for it, I really am. I also realised that for an ambitious man like Hui, home is a drag, and coming back to spend time with the wife in front of the TV is a waste. I never realised that it might also be a waste for me.
And you know Hui and I don’t have a child. They say if a man doesn’t want to have children with you within three years it means he doesn’t want to be tied to you forever. Forever! Ha! What an ill-conceived and unworkable word. Good riddance to that. I’m not interested in forever anymore. It should only be written on Mah Jong tiles—passed around casually from person to person.
But now everything has changed. Since I’ve started playing Mah Jong, I get home late, often later than Hui. Only the other day I tiptoed into the flat around two in the morning to find him slumped on the sofa, his tie askew and his dinner half-finished on a plate on the floor. The TV was still on. Some late-night game show was playing and the volume sounded violently loud in the silent room.
Usually I play Mah Jong with Old Gold and his mates or his clients. Then he drives me home in his big shiny BMW round and round the dark ring roads of Beijing. Sometimes we play deep into the night in karaoke parlours or bars. And sometimes I just sit in Old Gold’s BMW listening to his CD collection. Three weeks ago we were sitting there on the tan leather seats with Bryan Adams playing some sentimental 80s crap rock—I told him I liked it—and suddenly I realised that Old Gold wanted to kiss me. He was looking at me with his head on one side, his arm draped over the steering wheel, leaning forwards. I knew I had a choice: I could go back to my old life, be the woman waiting at home, or I could let Old Gold kiss me, and maybe even enjoy it. So I leaned my head on Gold’s shoulder and we kissed. We had sex on the back seat; the leather squeaked and was slippery and sticky next to my naked skin. The parking lot was so quiet and the night porters were wandering around with their white torch beams raised and shining so brightly that I was nearly worried someone might find us.
I think I forgot to mention that Old Gold is actually my boss. My husband Hui has played Mah Jong with him and his wife Xing many times; sometimes we even play as a foursome: two happy couples. What a joke.
I work for Gold’s newspaper—the New Consumer. I used to be the receptionist and then recently I was promoted. I know that Old Gold noticed me. He used to comment on my clothes or hairdo, and occasionally, you know, I would find him staring at me while he waited in reception for a lunch guest or client. Now my job is to read western fashion magazines and to report on the latest trends from Milan, Paris, or London. Gold is a smart guy—he knows people from the government and seems to understand how to run a business in Beijing. And of course he was well ahead of everyone when he bought his 250-square-metre flat in fashionable Jian Wai Soho—the most expensive area in Beijing—way before it hit the big time.
One night as I lay on my bed, waiting for my husband to come home, the scenes in Gold’s BMW flashed through my mind like a film reel. I was so nervous, you know. That night I played Mah Jong with colleagues in a bar, and Gold won all of our money. He flirted with me outrageously all evening, leaning in close, stroking my bare arm and commiserating with me on my bad luck. It was very late and he offered to drive me home. He was a little drunk and gloating about his winnings. I didn’t want to go home—I knew the life there too well. It bored me now. I wanted excitement and change, risk and adventure, and most of all, you know, I really wanted Old Gold. His body wasn’t great and his hair was greasy, but his touch had triggered something.
Three weeks later Gold’s wife Xing invites me and my husband to “build the Great Wall”—that’s what she calls Mah Jong. Now what can I tell you about Xing? So she picks great tiles… but what is that but just good luck? I can’t see that she has any other virtues. She is a fashionable woman who does nothing all day long, except for going to the hair salon and shopping for famous western brands. Before marrying Gold, she used to sing in a bar, screeching in her whiney high-pitched voice songs from Titanic and The Lion King, with the lyrics translated into Chinese. Actually, her voice isn’t that bad, but since she’s just been a housewife, she only uses it to order take away meals, or to curse Gold for not spending enough time with her.
My husband Hui loves playing at Gold’s place. He loves Gold’s brand new “Automatic Mah Jong Table”—a new gadget that automatically shuffles and arranges the tiles for you. It’s very popular because people save time in between each round and they can stay focussed on gambling instead.
So the day finally arrives when we four are supposed to build the Great Wall. It’s a balmy Saturday evening. I wear my best summer dress—fake Dolce & Gabbana—I imagine it being a bit like the blue violet dress in the Nick Cave song. Hui carries some beers under his arm. Arriving in Gold’s residential area, we have to pass through a whole series of security gates and wind our way along a complicated garden path. As we approach Gold’s front door, I hear a woman crying. I hesitate, but Hui has already pressed the bell. Gold opens the door with sunken cheeks, and right behind him we see his wife Xing’s swollen eyes. The floor is a mess. Broken china plates, hair clips, crumpled old newspapers, a woman’s underwear, and Gold’s leather handbag. You know right that moment I wanted to run back home as fast as I could, but Hui had already walked into their kitchen and put five bottles of beer on the table. He was smiling, trying to sooth the atmosphere.
“What’s the matter? You two had a little argument?” Hui asks in his best voice.
“Let me tell you what kind of asshole my husband is!” Xing sneezes.
My heart sinks. I steal a glance at Gold, but he has buried himself in a big leather sofa, and he doesn’t look up. He stares at his toes. “Look what I found in his bag!” Xing fetches a small gift box from the top of the TV set. She opens it. It’s a silver necklace with a dangling crystal heart. Then she unfolds a note from inside the box and reads aloud: “For my darling, happy birthday!” She looks around at us with wide wet eyes, “Ha!” She looks at Gold. “Ha!” The words come out sharp and hard like little bullets.
No one says a word. Gold seems to grow more depressed, Hui looks at me for a couple of seconds but he quickly shifts his gaze back to the angry hostess.
“Happy birthday for my darling! Did you hear? That can’t be me! My birthday was a month ago, that day we went bowling. He bought me a jade necklace and I’ve worn it ever since!”
I look at her and sure enough she’s wearing a green jade necklace. It sits heavily around her neck—the colour is dull and there is no shine to the stone. I’m getting restless. Does Gold’s wife know the date of my birthday? And has Hui remembered it this time? Last year he didn’t you know, and I ate a special home-cooked hot pot dish all by myself for two and half hours waiting for him to come home and remember. Anyway, it is next Thursday.
“Where are your guts now? Who is she? Eh?”
“I’ve told you twenty times, my dear, I bought it for you then I found the jade and I always think jade things suit you best!” Gold yells.
“Let’s leave this business for now, buddies.” My good-tempered husband finds a broom, starts to clear up the floor. “In my opinion, Xing, you need to trust your husband. I believe he bought that for you.”
Xing seems to withdraw a little from her hysteria. She stops speaking, walks to the sofa and curls up beside her husband. Her legs are close to his—no, actually it looks like she is clinging to him. Her gesture makes me feel very strange. I realise I don’t want to be in her place, snuggled up to Old Gold’s sausage legs and breathing in his musky smell; but I am glad of our moments in the back of his car.
Hui sweeps everything into a corner. Now, with a light-hearted manner, he unfolds Gold’s expensive automatic Mah Jong table, and installs it in the middle of the room. He does it as confidently as if this was his own house. From the sofa, Gold and Xing passively gaze at their guest moving around the room in front of them. What a great husband I have!
“Maybe we should go, we’ll come some other time,” I say in a tense voice.
“No way, you’ve come all this way! You can’t possibly leave now!” Gold is nearly begging us.
“Yes, let’s forget about this stupid necklace and have some fun!” Hui adds. “It is Saturday night after all!” He drags Gold and Xing out of the sofa. Yes, Hui is right, why we can’t enjoy this game? I mean, the game of playing a Mah Jong together.
We all take our seats around the Mah Jong table. I am facing Old Gold. His eyes are lowered and beads of sweat dot his upper lip. Hui presses the control button, and at once a bunch of white tiles appear. Automatically they line up into four neat, tight walls.
Gold grabs some notes from his wallet and places them on the table, so does Hui. Then Xing follows, with her crab-like fingers. We start with one-yuan notes, as usual. I take out my wallet filled with credit cards, but there’s no cash in it. My husband notices this and throws me 20 yuan; you know I can’t help smiling to myself at how sweetly innocent is my dear Hui.
We arrange our tiles. Xing seems less miserable than earlier. The Mah Jong tiles do have a special kind of magnetism which sucks her into the game—I know only too well. Gradually, she seems to forget the memory of what happened twenty minutes ago. Yet she throws the dices like a desperate gambler, hypnotised by disaster.
The first hour passes uneventfully. My husband keeps losing money, and Gold’s wife is winning. Neither Gold nor I say much. I make a point of being very attentive to Hui and I can feel Gold’s eyes on me as I touch my husband’s arm or kiss his cheek. I enjoy Gold’s stare.
Then the game grows more intense, Gold’s wife bids 10 yuan at each round. Hui grows desperate. He has lost nearly 400 yuan, and the game is not even halfway through. I keep as quiet as Gold, who drinks his beer with a professional gambler’s face—motionless and unreadable.
Midnight. The beers are all gone. The two men start to drink Er Guo Tou, the strongest Beijing sorghum liquor, while Xing nibbles at a pack of cashew nuts. I sip at my glass of water. The whole situation has my rapt attention: I feel like I’m watching a play enacted in real time, only forgetting that I’m one of the key players. I peek at Xing: she is totally taken by the game. Now she stands up, goes to the kitchen and brings back two pomegranates. She bites into the fruit’s hard skin, and at the same time, she hands me the other one. I take the pomegranate and put it on the corner of the Mah Jong table. I can’t eat. Really, how can she eat such a hard fruit in the middle of the night?
Waiting for the machine to shuffle the tiles, the two men chink their glasses and swallow the fiery liquor into their empty stomachs. With pomegranate seeds in her mouth, Xing gazes at me with a strange expression. Then she says: “That silver necklace,” she spits out some seeds onto the floor, ‘I know who it is for.’
I am suddenly uncertain. Bit by bit my resolve feels like it is being gnawed away by a mouse. The air conditioning is too strong. A chill runs down my spine. My legs feel prickle with pins and needles. They hang loose from my body like the limbs of a puppet. I feel stuck. I can’t move my body at all. What should I do? And where should I look? I pull my eyes away from the scene and glance outside through the double glazed windows: it’s a warm summer evening, a group of old people are sitting under a polar tree, fans in hand, drinking tea. I wish I hadn’t worn this thin dress, this Nick Cave blue violet dress. My nose starts to run with clear liquid and I begin to sneeze.
Gold and Hui freeze and stare at her, glasses in their hands, the liquor a sweet golden nectar.
The automatic table suddenly gets stuck. It makes a disturbing noise, and starts to click and whine.
No one knows what to say.
“I’m going to bed now, you three carry on.”
Very deliberately Xing rises from her chair, leaves the table, still biting into the hard skin of her pomegranate.
I let out the breath I’ve been holding for so long. Gold watches as his wife disappears down the corridor towards her bedroom, then looks back at the table. Still, he doesn’t look at me. What a coward, I think. He would never dare to admit to everyone that he likes me, let alone mention that we now make love in the back of his car after every Mah Jong session. I start to think that maybe I don’t know my boss at all. Perhaps today is the first day I have really begun to know him. Then beside me, Hui drinks another swig of liquor, his face growing red and swollen. Silence.
I stare at the pomegranate in the corner of the table. It is a big one, with pink and brown mottled skin, and a dirty white sticker saying “Product of Iran”.
The three of us sit there hoping for the tiles to be delivered on to the table. But the shuffling machine goes on clicking, like a dying lobster.
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