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In the distance there was a building that resembled an American post office put up with public works money during the Great Depression. Only this one was in the center of Beijing.

“What's that?” I asked B.D.

“I say I will show you the Forbidden City,” she said.  She pointed at a red gate with a billboard-sized picture of Mao near it on a red wall. 

“I don't think he was around back then when the eunuchs ran the kingdom,” I said. She hadn't understood me. “What's that?” I said again. 

“Where Mao sleeps,” B.D. said. 

“A mausoleum?” 

B.D. had a charming way of blinking her eyes and pressing her face up close to mine when she hadn't understood what I'd said. With our noses a few inches apart, I repeated, “Mau-so-le-um.”

Sex, both its pleasures and obligations, was what had brought me to Beijing, not sightseeing. B.D. lived in Beijing. I lived in Shenzhen. She had come to Shenzhen a few months before, to stay with me for several days, and, returning the favor, I was now in Beijing for the first time, having no idea how long we could go on this way. 

She looked up “mausoleum” in an electronic dictionary she always carried around with her. She said, “That's it.”
“I want to pay him a visit,” I said, “to verify he's really dead.”  

B.D. pouted. I walked off; she reluctantly followed me, continuing to pout as we crossed under Long Peace Street through a pedestrian tunnel. We made our way across Tiananmen Square, coming to the mausoleum. A row of columns atop a series of steps ran the length of it, giving it a formidable presence. Several windows, all three- or so stories in height, reflected Beijing's gray air. The corners of the roof were curled up slightly, giving it a decidedly Chinese look. 

A hundred or more Chinese pilgrims were lined up, waiting to enter the mausoleum. B.D. told me she would wait for me outside the exit. 

“I'm not going there!” she said.

The line of pilgrims—and me—shuffled forward. I showed my passport to a stern-faced young woman in a blue uniform, passed through a metal detector, and continued on up a series of steps to the entrance. 

To get as many people through the mausoleum in as short a time as possible, the line divided into two, so that people flowed around Mao the way water flows around a rock in a stream, Mao lying in state being, in this case, the rock. 

In an antechamber pilgrims were buying white carnations for two yuan (about fifty cents) and placing them against a wall. The carnations were so white and perfect they looked fake, as many things in China do, because they are. 

I followed the pilgrims around the wall of carnations, into the room where Mao was laid out on some fluffed-up satin under a canopy of glass that resembled an overturned aquarium. His eyes were shut, his hair brushed back in deeply plowed furrows, as if cast in a mold. He had been dressed in—what else—a green Mao jacket. Some lights down around his feet projected up onto his face, giving his face a Halloween kind of rubbery mask aura. 

The stream of pilgrims pushed me past him, and I came to a room in which Mao souvenirs were sold, many with inlaid acrylic images of him—paperweights, bottle openers, key chains, cigarette lighters—kitschy things like that, all very counter revolutionary.  

I exited the mausoleum and saw B.D. at the bottom of a flight of steps waving and walking over to her. 

“Now I've confirmed that he really is dead,” I said, “let's go to the Forbidden City.”

“No! Too crowded,” B.D. said. 

I followed her back across Tiananmen Square, where, in 1989, students had demonstrated against the government and one had stared down a tank before the Party officials, in particular Deng Xiao Peng, who is the architect for China's economic ascendancy, put the protest down, killing who knows how many. This was history, where I was, hallowed ground, and I mentioned this to B.D., but she, like most Chinese, had no idea what I was talking about. The Party had done such a good job of covering up the tragedy by buying their loyalty with wealth.   

About thirty minutes later we came to Beihai Park. It had a lake and stately trees, stone walkways, benches, and public toilets, though none of the Chinese men who snorted and issued a wad of spit right there onto a walkway bothered with going to one.

  We walked along a path beside the lake. Across the lake there was a very ornate pavilion made to look as if it were from an earlier era. Its green tile roof had turned a sickly yellow in the smog.

We came to a bench, and I sat down. B.D. stood  there for a while, looking out across the lake. Some Chinese couples were maneuvering around it in paddle boats made to look like swans that they worked by using a pedal contraption connected to a fan-wheel. 

B.D., still looking out over the lake, said, “I want to show you Chinese history, Forbidden City. Why do you want Mao?”

This had all been a mistake, I thought, coming to Beijing to see her. 

I said, “Mao was a great man.” 

“Mao killed so many!” she said. Many Chinese, I had learned, held this view of him, though few said so.

We sat there for a while longer, watching the couples in the paddle boats. And then a police motorboat started up and sped across the lake, its siren blaring. The wake coming off its stern jostled the paddle boats, causing the hulls to slap against the water. A woman screamed, a little panicked.

B.D. put a hand on my leg. I grasped it. As the police boat's siren grew louder, B.D. squeezed my hand tightly. I returned her embrace. 


James Roth is an English Language Fellow in the U.S. State Department's EFL Program. His stories and essays have appeared in several magazines and journals. His first novel, “The Opium Addict,” is forthcoming in late 2022. He has completed a second novel, set in modern Japan, which is a literary mystery. He has taught in Japan, China, and Zimbabwe. He likes to say he was "Made in Japan." His parents lived there during the occupation, but, to his—and his mother's—lasting regret he was born in an Army hospital in the U.S.

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