An unexpected friendship – fiction by Daniel Tam-Claiborne


He met her over the classifieds; that was how it started. He was living in Beijing for a couple of years then, teaching, and porting in and out of Mongolia on a tourist visa. Truth be told, though, even the teaching was a stretch. He rented a small room in an apartment with a couple of other foreigners and was going out nearly every night. By the time Thursday arrived, he could practically count the stiches at the bottom of his wallet.

The woman in the ad wanted English lessons. It all sounded pretty standard: reading, listening, conversation practice. That is, except for the asking price. It was over twice what he had seen anywhere else, so naturally he contacted her immediately. He figured he would have to fight off scores of would-be English tutors, but she wrote back within the hour and agreed to start right away.

Class was Saturday mornings. Friday nights were always the worst, but he told himself that he’d just ease up gradually and it wouldn’t be so bad. There he was, drinking a glass of scotch, watching the traffic swirl outside his twelfth-story balcony, and before he knew it, he was waking up in a bed he didn’t recognize, pulling all his strength together just to get across town.

How old are you? she asked him on their first class. He swallowed a hiccup and smoothed a hand over the gray in his hair. Twenty-seven, he replied, though he was closing in on thirty-two.

She looked older than he expected – mid-40s as far as he could gather. She dressed well, but modestly, and insisted that they have class at her home. Her apartment was spotless, at times verging on ornate. He knew that she had a daughter in high school who was studying abroad, and for a long time he had no idea how she could afford to pay him. She told him her name was Mary, so that was what he called her.

Mary had a real knack for English. Her speaking wasn’t perfect, but it seemed she could read nearly anything he gave her – thick autobiographies, legal briefs, engineering manuals. One day she told him that she wanted to study psychology, so he brought over an introductory textbook like the ones you find at a college lecture class and they started reading from the first chapter.

On the fifth week, Mary cancelled class. They had been reading a chapter on social psychology, and Mary was stuck on something called cognitive dissonance. Try as he might, he couldn’t explain it for the life of him.

It’s like having two contradictory beliefs at the same time, and needing to find a way to reconcile them, he said, reading from the textbook. Individuals seek consistency between their expectations and their reality by ignoring or denying information that conflicts with existing beliefs.

At first he feared the worst – that Mary was done with classes for good – but she said she would only be gone for a week. She was going with her husband to visit her daughter in Australia, whom neither of them had seen in months. It was the first time she had mentioned her husband.

Your husband? he asked suddenly.  And then, catching himself: What does your husband do? Finance, she said simply, pointing in the direction of the towers on the east side of the city. He often works late.

He almost wanted to laugh. He knew the type well: lavish banquets, karaoke, pay-by-the-hour hotels with the tinted windows.

I bet he travels a lot too, he prodded, like he was inviting her in on a joke. On business. He let the word sear off his tongue. But when he looked back at Mary, she was nodding her head, and without the slightest flinch, said: Sometimes we go months without seeing each other.

He could picture it perfectly then – Mary’s bedroom at the end of the hall, sheets folded neatly, the extra towel that sat untouched on the nightstand for weeks. He wondered how she could do it, stay so blithely unaware. The explanation practically fell in his lap. Cognitive dissonance, he thought. You can convince yourself of anything.

At the beginning, he and Mary were meeting every Saturday for lessons, then twice a week. By the time he left, they were having class every other day, always at her apartment in the center of the city. She started telling him all sorts of things, things she had no one else to tell. Most of the time, he left the textbook in his bag; at some point, he stopped bringing it altogether.

He wouldn’t admit it, but he actually started to enjoy the classes. He could see himself coming over to her apartment a few times a week just to talk about her daughter, or what movies she’d watched recently, or what he was doing that weekend. Maybe even for free. Or at least for half of what she was paying.

To tell the truth, he was pretty lonely too. After a while he was spending all his free time there. She’d text him after work, just to see how he was doing. Late at night too, when he was getting ready to sleep. He’d always respond right away.

He left China for good after Spring Festival. He told himself that he’d go back when he saved enough money to buy the plane ticket and the timing just worked out. He knew that he couldn’t live there forever, that he was just killing time with dead-end jobs. He upped and disappeared without telling anyone, just figured it would be easier that way.

Back home, he rarely went out, started working regular hours, even got himself a steady girlfriend. When friends asked him about his time away, he would joke, and say something about China needing to find better English teachers. He talked about Mary sometimes too, about how lucrative the whole arrangement was, how she was his ticket out.

Later on, after everyone had left, he would think about the conversations they used to have. He would recall the softness of her voice, the meals at the kitchen table, how her daughter’s empty bedroom looked when it filled with light. More than that, he wondered why she’d kept him around all that time. He thought back on the early English classes, the lesson on cognitive dissonance, and how he’d never really explained it, how maybe he’d never really explained anything, and then, just as quickly, put it out of mind.

Daniel Tam-Claiborne is a writer in Beijing, and Gruber Fellow in Global Justice and Women’s Rights at the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation

This story was read out at Scotch & Stories night at the Beijing Bookworm on May 27th, accompanied by a cask strength Glenfarclas