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Chapter Nineteen

The hot, dry Santa Ana wind blew through the campus, across Los Angeles and over all of Southern California. In China, it would signal the beginning of a sandstorm, bringing stinging eyes and a nose and mouth full of grit. A Li sat outside in the heat and wind, on the patio of a restaurant at the edge of campus. She ate rice, vegetables and boiled chicken with clumsy pink plastic chopsticks. Instead of drinking tea, she sipped an iced cappuccino, something she had come to love in America. She touched the side of her head and felt the lump from her fall the previous night.

A Li had little time or money to waste, but Wednesday was the one day of the week when she indulged herself. When her biochemistry class ended at noon, she walked across campus to eat lunch. She had two hours before her next class and she reserved the time to enjoy the fresh air, have a good meal and clear her mind. By the end of lunch, she usually felt relaxed and focused. Today she found it difficult to achieve any tranquility. The smoky image of her angry sister from the night before disturbed her. Sitting on the patio of the restaurant, she wondered why A Mei was angry. She should have been happy and felt honored by the birthday ceremony. Could she be jealous of Tanay?

A Li looked around. She was the only one sitting alone. Every couple seemed to come together at lunchtime. She watched undergrads and graduate students, unkempt engineering students and researchers in white lab coats, football players and cheerleaders and even a few homosexual couples—all walking the sidewalks hand in hand or sitting on the café patios looking into each other’s eyes.

Today, in the bright sunlight, A Li felt especially alone and even thoughts of her sister could not dispel her solitary feeling. Yesterday she turned 28, and if she were Han Chinese, she would be regarded as unmatchable. In China, most women her age had already married and started families. Even today in Beijing, she knew that white-collar Chinese parents gathered in Zhongshan Park, bringing their children’s information and lists of requirements for marriage, hoping to arrange meetings for their sons or daughters at teahouses. She knew that A Ma and Pa Lags were anxious about her marriage prospects even though they rarely mentioned it. Her parents were willing to let her pursue her research, but she sometimes felt she was missing something in life. She remembered the Tibetan weddings she had seen as a child. Would she ever have such a ceremony, with singing and dancing, with white flour worn on the foreheads of her family members and holy water sprinkled on the ground to worship heaven, earth and the mountain gods? She thought about Tanay, their trip to the Flower Mart and his gift of the brass elephant, and wondered again ifA Mei disapproved of him.

The wind carried a cloud of sickly sweet smoke over from the next patio, interrupting her thoughts. Strings of tiny white lights, like frosting dripping from a cake, hung from the awning at Shakkar’s, where the mid-eastern students gathered to smoke their hookahs. Half a dozen of them sat around a table, each with three day’s stubble of dark whiskers, conversing in loud voices, gesturing with their hands, sucking smoke into their lungs and blowing it into the air. Each of their ornate water pipes had a marble bowl at the top that held burning coals and pressed cubes of flavored tobacco. The pipe bodies of silver or gold contained a tube that channeled the smoke down into cut glass water bowls. The smoke bubbled up through the water and the men drew it in through slender flexible hoses. A Li once looked at Shakkar’s menu, which offered only tobacco—dozens of fruit and flower flavors and a selection of specialties like Sex on the Beach and Code 69. A few American students went there to smoke, but most of them congregated at the coffee shops. The Asians shunned Shakkar’s and went to the noodle restaurants.

A Li grew restless and anxious sitting on the patio. She paid her check and started back to the campus. On the corner, the movie theater was about to open its doors for an afternoon matinee of the newest vampire movie. Dozens of teenagers were already lined up. A Li couldn’t understand the interest in vampires. They were featured around the world—in books, movies and on television. Half the people in the United States, adults included, were obsessed with vampires and seemed to believe they actually existed.

She knew every culture had its vampire stories, but that was all they were, stories. The Tibetan Book of the Dead told tales of the Wrathful Deities, also called the Blood Drinking Deities. These spirits stole blood from sleeping people and drank it from cups made of human sculls. Some of them had blue-green bodies, others had three blood-shot eyes and flames in their eyebrows and still others had canine teeth. Even the Chinese had Ch’ing Shih, the vampire with poisonous breath, which could be stopped only by spilling rice in its path. These old tales were wonderful and entertaining, but they were only fables of Buddhist lore, used to teach lessons of morality. The fact that the vampire stories in America took place in the present made them even more ridiculous. Who would believe that the bloodsuckers actually existed and moved among the population wreaking havoc? Maybe a group of them attended CU and snuck through the tunnels at night—A Li wondered whether they would be undergraduates or graduate students. She smiled at the thought of something with a blue-green body and three bloodshot eyes coming in the middle of the night to suck her Bombay Blood. She would have to make a decision in a nano-second about which eye to stab. She might be laughing too hard to defend herself. The amusement over the blue-green vampires distracted her temporarily from the growing sense of foreboding that was lurking in her mind.

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