While Markus sat on the grass at Heaven’s Gate watching Grisha drive away in the van, A Li stood on the sidewalk in Brentwood waiting for Tanay to pick her up for their trip to the Flower Mart. After countless hours under fluorescent lights, the daylight seemed unnatural. She checked the time again. It was 12:45 p.m., and no sign of Tanay. She looked at her cell phone. No messages. She hoped he hadn’t changed his mind. A Mei would not be pleased if she failed to obtain the iris. A Li walked to the corner, turned and walked back. She glanced again at the directions to the Flower Mart, which she had printed out from Mapquest.
Five minutes later, Tanay arrived driving a filthy, old Honda with a crumpled rear fender. He jumped out, ran around the car and opened the passenger side door for A Li. He pressed his hands together in front of his chest, fingers pointed upward and said, “Welcome to the royal carriage.”
A Li swept a pile of crumbs off the front seat and got in. Tanay’s car was a mess. The back seat was filled with newspapers, biomedical research magazines and an old suitcase. A layer of dust covered everything and the windshield was grimy. Tanay was such a neat and organized person. A Li wondered how his car could be such a disaster.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said. “I had to get air in the tires. I don’t drive much; it’s so hard driving on the right-hand side.” Tanay shifted into gear, popped the clutch, and the car lurched forward. “Happy birthday,” he said.
“Thank you,” A Li said. “What’s important is A Mei’s birthday.” She buckled her seat belt. “Do you know how to get to the 10 Freeway?” Her own knowledge of the city and its highway system was limited. The longest trip she had taken in Los Angeles was the bus ride from the airport to the university. “Here.”
“Directions.” A Li gave Tanay the Mapquest sheet. “From the Flower Mart to Chinatown, it says you just stay on Broadway.”
Tanay held the sheet in one hand without looking at it. “Chinatown?”
A Li looked at Tanay. “Please? It’s nearby and it won’t take long.”
“What are we doing in Chinatown?” Tanay looked at the map and the Honda veered into the oncoming lane.
“Oh,” A Li exclaimed.
Tanay steered back into the right-hand lane.
“I have to pick up something else…I was hoping…”
“I thought we could have a birthday lunch,” Tanay said. He looked at his watch. “But I have to be back by three.” Tanay sped down Santa Monica Boulevard. After a few minutes he said, “How did the mouse dissection go?”
“It was slow, but I didn’t make any mistakes.”
“Pretty soon you’ll be able to do it in your sleep. Want to hear a mouse joke?”
“Yes.” A Li wasn’t proficient enough in English to understand most of the jokes she heard.
“Scientists can cure any disease known to mice.” Tanay laughed and looked to see if she understood.
A Li didn’t get it, but she smiled and changed the subject. “Did you hear about the hematology seminar last week?”
“What about it?” Tanay sped up at an intersection just as the light turned red.
A Li shifted in her seat and braced herself with a hand on the dashboard. “They had a presentation on artificial blood. There’s a new substitute with fluorocarbons. It’s a clear liquid that looks like water, but it holds dissolved oxygen. They showed a mouse submerged in it.”
“Submerged in it?” Tanay turned to look at her.
“Watch the road, please. It was alive and breathing this fluid which had oxygen in it. It was like having regular blood going through its lungs. It lived underwater for an hour.”
“Speaking of blood, I researched Bombay Blood last night. One out of every 250,000 people? That makes you special.”
“It’s a curse.”
“It should be called Mumbai Blood now.”
“Most people who have it are of East Indian descent.”
“Are you part Indian?” Tanay reached out to touch her arm. “We could be related.”
A Li felt the warm touch of his fingertips. “My ancestors were from Tibet.”
“There are Indian bloodlines in the Tibetans. Way back.”
“No,” A Li said, shaking her head. “We’re not related.”
“Just a thought,” Tanay murmured.
“We’re what are called para-Bombay individuals.”
“True Bombay have no antigens at all in their blood. Para-Bombay’s are closer to Type O, but not close enough to accept it in a transfusion.” A Li looked out the window at downtown Los Angeles. From the freeway, she saw construction cranes towering over building sites and thought of Beijing, where construction was spreading like a tidal wave, destroying whole neighborhoods, crushing and pushing aside the homes of thousands of people.
“Does Dr. Murray know about it?” Tanay asked.
“Yes, he knows. He’s never mentioned it, but I think he wants samples for research. In fact, that may be the reason I’m in the program.”
“No, I’m sure you’re in the program because you’re smart.”
A Li ignored his comment. “It’s almost impossible to get Bombay Blood for use in lab work.”
“Do you think he’s planning to reprogram bone marrow stem cells to make Bombay Blood?”
“Yes, you have it.”
“I have it?”
“You have it.”
“I think you mean, ‘you got it.’ It’s slang.”
“Yes, you got it, that’s correct,” A Li said. “Maybe I should bottle my blood and sell it for research. How much do you think a liter is worth?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I could use the money. I’m still paying back the State Grant program for the tuition money at Yunnan University. I haven’t even started to pay back the provincial government for my CU loan.”
“You don’t have enough blood in your body to pay all those loans. Forget it.” He held up the map again and glanced at it.
When Tanay turned off the 10 Freeway at San Pedro Street, A Li saw signs pointing in different directions for the Toy District, the Fashion District and the Flower Mart. Tanay proceeded several blocks into an area filled with stores selling cut flowers, wreaths, bouquets, ribbons, glassware and balloons. Everything was displayed out on the sidewalks. It reminded A Li of marketplaces at home. Further on, delivery vans with open doors were parked in the middle of the street, along the curb and even on the sidewalks. Merchants loaded them with boxed flowers and bouquets wrapped in cellophane and paper. Instead of the usual urban litter of old newspapers and plastic bags, the breeze blew colorful piles of flower petals and leaves into the corners of doorways.
“The Flower Mart,” A Li said, “is supposed to be a big building.”
They drove further. The sidewalks were filled with Americans, Japanese and Latinos, a new word A Li had learned since coming to Los Angeles. A group of young schoolchildren walked, danced and skipped as their teachers herded them along. The boys wore red T-shirts, the girls wore white. Each clutched a carnation.
“There it is.” Tanay pointed to a pale yellow building that ran the length of an entire block. He scanned the street. “There’s no place to park.” He pulled in to a spot in front of a fire hydrant. “I’ll wait for you here.”
“Thank you, I won’t be long.”
After she got out of Tanay’s filthy car, A Li brushed herself off. When she entered the Flower Mart, the air was moist and heavy with fragrance. The scent was so thick it smelled as if someone had spilled perfume. A kaleidoscope of colors greeted her. Red, pink, yellow, purple, orange and white blooms filled the building. As A Li started down the center aisle, she saw sunlight shining in from the far entrance on the next street. The activity was frantic. Men opened refrigeration units and pulled out flowers. Trucks were loaded and unloaded along an indoor dock. At tables, men and women sprayed, trimmed, arranged and bundled bouquets, piling them on flatbed dollies. One man stood at a table piled high with long stem roses. He worked quickly, stripping thorns and pulling the outer petals off each bud, creating a blood-red ocean at his feet. Everyone in the warehouse was busy.
A Li wandered through the building, too shy to ask anyone where to find the iris, she saw a man in the middle of an aisle with a cart full of lilies,gladiolas and other white flowers. She thought he might be some sort of official because he was wearing a blue suit, a white shirt and black tie, while everyone around her wore jeans and T-shirts. “Excuse me,” she said. “Do you know where the iris are?”
“Iris? What kind of iris do you want?” he said. “Germanica? Sibirica? Pseudacorus?”
“I don’t know. Just iris.”
The man looked at her. “Where are you from?”
“China. Tibetan Autonomous Region.”
“Iris Latistyla. But you won’t find anything like that here. What they do have would be over there.” He pointed to the other side of the building.
“Are you bereaved?”
“Have you lost someone?”
“Oh yes, my sister.” A Li lowered her eyes.
The man unbuttoned his blue suit jacket. He had a big, strong body and his clothes were too small. He pulled out his wallet and withdrew a card.“I work for the Gates of Heaven Funeral Parlor. We specialize in memorial services and cremations.” He gave her the card. His hands were bruised and he had dirt under his fingernails.
“Crema…?” A Li studied the card.
“Cre-may-shuns. The body is burned up. Flames? Smoke?” He fluttered his big hands upward. “You understand?”
A Li nodded. “Oh yes. We do that at home with the bones of the dead.” She put the card in her pocket. She looked at him closely. “Are you American?”
“I am Russian.” He thumped his chest with his fist.
“Thank you,” A Li said. She gave him a polite nod and set off for the iris on the other side of the Flower Mart.
As she wound her way through the building, she passed a group of vendors who sold moss, ferns, leaves and branches used for flower arrangements. She stopped and purchased several juniper twigs. When she finally found the vendors selling iris, she was pleased to see that the ones growing in America resembled those found on the high plateau of her home. She selected a small bouquet, paid and made her way back to Tanay’s car.
When she opened the door, Tanay started the engine immediately.“Get what you wanted?”
“Yes,” A Li said, “my sister will be pleased.”
“I was sure I was going to get a ticket.”
A Li took the sheet with the directions off the dashboard and looked at it. “You turn left on Ninth Street.” She pointed to the intersection in front of them. “Go four blocks and you come to Broadway. We stay on Broadway all the way to Chinatown.”
Tanay took the directions from her. “How far is that? You didn’t print out the mileage.”
“I don’t know,” A Li said. “Just turn right and keep going.”
Tanay drove through open 12-foot-high steel gates topped with barbwire, passed a barricade of shipping containers with a sign warning BIO SECURE AREA and parked in front of the China Sun Fresh Market. The moment he turned off the engine, the sound of hundreds of chickens filled the air. “What is this?”he said.
“It’s supposed to be the closest you can get to a real Chinese market in Los Angeles,” A Li said. As soon as she opened her door, the odor filled the car. It was a disgusting smell from a mixture of chicken droppings, poultry intestines, animal offal, and fish.
“Yech,” Tanay exclaimed, “this makes the rat room at the Colony smell good.”
“I’ll just be a minute.”
“I’m not coming in.”
A Li walked into the market and instantly felt at home. The odor was even stronger inside, although the cement floor had just been hosed down and was still wet. China Sun sold only a few kinds of fish and meat; the poultry was killed on the premises. Chinese men and women carrying ragged shopping bags lined up at the counter. Several stood in the fish line for Ca Ro Bien—red Tapia; Con Hao Song—Oysters; and So Mong—clams. A Li waited at the meat counter. Behind it, she could see through a doorway where men scurried back and forth holding live chickens upside down by their legs. The birds flapped their wings, cackled and struggled to get free. In the background, A Li could hear the difference between the ordinary sounds of chickens and roosters and the shrieks of the animals whose necks were about to be broken.
“Can I help you?” a woman behind the counter asked. She was old, her gray hair covered by a hairnet. Her face was fat and puffy and she looked at A Li through thick round eyeglasses with wire frames.
“Yes, I came to pick up a special order for Jian.”
“Just a minute,” the woman said and disappeared into the back.
A Li waited and looked at the items in the glass cases in front of her. Hundreds of pink and yellow chicken feet filled several metal pans. Pig’s feet, with the skin removed but the hooves intact, were also available. Ground meat, stuffed into large plastic bags, filled the end of the refrigeration case.
The woman returned and handed A Li a small package wrapped in white butcher paper. A Li unwrapped it, checked the contents and shoved it into her purse. “How much is it?”
“Special order, short notice. You wanted today.” The woman smiled, resembling a Buddha.
A Li withdrew a ten-dollar bill and two ones from her wallet. Americans had the cleanest money of any nation. In China, the paper money was torn and filthy. She handed the crisp bills to the woman and went out into the parking lot. A forklift carrying a pallet-load of live chickens in small metal cages nearly crushed her feet as it rolled past.
Tanay was resting his head against the back of the seat with his eyes closed. When A Li opened the door, he snapped forward.
“Asleep?” she asked.
“No, I was meditating and trying to block out the smell. It didn’t work. I’m about to throw up.” Tanay looked at his watch. “It’s two-twenty, too late for lunch, but I couldn’t eat now anyway.”
“Thank you for doing this for me.”
“I have a present for you.” Tanay reached into the rubble on the back seat and pulled out a white paper bag, which he handed to A Li. “Happy birthday.”
A Li was surprised at its weight. She reached inside and withdrew something wrapped in brown paper. She unwrapped a small brass elephant, perhaps four inches long, inlaid with glass jewels and decorated in exquisite detail. She turned to Tanay. “Thank you, how beautiful. I wasn’t…I didn’t expect you to give me a gift.”
Tanay blushed under his tan skin. “I didn’t expect to either, but I did. I hope you like it.”
A Li thought of kissing him on the cheek, but before she could do it, Tanay put the car into gear and shot out onto the street without looking. An oncoming car swerved and sounded its horn.
On the way back, she looked at Tanay out of the corner of her eye and thought about inviting him to accompany her to the Moon Festival Celebration sponsored by the Chinese Students and Scholar’s Association. Planned for September 25 on the University of Southern California campus, it promised to be a wonderful night. A Li was looking forward to it because the dances, music and singing would remind her of home. It was certain to draw people from the entire Los Angeles area. Even the Consul General of China and his family were supposed to attend. For a moment, she imagined how proud she would be if everyone saw Tanay at her side.
“I want to ask you something,” she said.
“Do you like women with blond hair? There are so many here.”
“Blond hair? No, no one in India has blond hair. I like black hair.”
A Li wondered what it would be like if Tanay were her boyfriend. She tried to imagine what they would do with the little free time they might have together. She didn’t even know where he lived. Would she leave Professor Chen’s home on Canyon Avenue and move in with him? Would they make love when she came home from Dr. Murray’s lab in the early morning? What did Tanay look like naked? Would he like the way she looked? She had once seen a movie in which a man came up behind his girlfriend, reached under her sweater and cupped her breasts. Would Tanay ever do that? Unlike most American girls, she was thin and had small breasts.
A Li was shocked—and excited—by her thoughts. She thought of A Mei, ever-present, and gave a small sigh. Would A Mei approve of Tanay? She had her twin and that had always been enough. A Li decided not to mention the Festival to Tanay.