Article Thumbnail

Fiction Feature: “Staccato” By Peter Tieryas Liu




Six weeks of every year, I take a trip to Beijing and invent a new “me.” I usually pick

international hotels because everyone there wears a costume too. Mine is “Esau Zhou”

and I sell vitamins to cows.

The hotel is in the Wudaokou area near one of the main universities, Tsing-Hua.

There’s lots of exchange students here, a thriving cultural mishmash in Beijing.

Partly drugged by jet lag and nocturnal remissions, I chat with Jean, a Korean art

student who paints noses over fingers as a motif on misguided sense. Abraham, a

disillusioned meteorologist, likes to ask, “If rain were as heavy as bullets, would people

have found a way to change weather, or would they have invented bullet-proof

umbrellas?” The German brunette across from me refuses to give her name, only dates

rich Chinese guys, and has a row with them every night before loud, raucous sex.

I talk about vitamins with the other guests. Cells normally subdivide until they die, I

explain, a vestige of reincarnation sucking away at the original. A healthy dose of

vitamin E can prolong age and life by increasing the durability of cell regeneration after


The first time I see Sarah Chao, she’s holding a violin with broken strings, sipping on a

cocktail in the lobby. She’s Chinese but has placid blue eyes that appear to drift.

Riveting is a word I shouldn’t use carelessly, as I’ve had bad experience with rivets. But

her eyes are riveting.

I introduce myself, tell her why I’m here.

She stares skeptically. “What do you really do?”

“I sell vitamins to help lengthen the lives of cows.”

She finishes her drink, puts it down.

“What about you?” I ask.

“I sell dead moths and play music on broken instruments.” She plucks a string

on the violin. It sounds like a screech. “Zaijian.”

The next couple of nights, I linger around the lobby, hoping to bump into her again.

Instead, I get stuck with Adam. Adam’s spent five of the past eight years in an American

prison for kidnapping neighborhood pugs. He used to be religious but couldn’t

understand how any superior being could create an animal so ugly. “I wish I could

eradicate them,” he declares, shaking with rage. “How can people treat these dogs better

than human beings?”

He burps loudly, rants about the evils of signal lights, and scares away people by

showing scars on his ass. I wish he’d go away, but he doesn’t and shares his cheap

Chinese alcohol that’s 60 proof. “The Chinese bred pugs ’cause they thought the

wrinkles in the face made them look like dragons,” I tell Adam, but he’s passed out, and

I don’t think he wants to hear about the congruence of ugliness.

I stumble to my room and black out.

“Someone committed suicide in your room,” is the first thing I hear when I open my


It’s Sarah.

She’s holding my wallet. “Your real name is Emma Zhou?”

I try to snatch my wallet away but she dodges my hand.

“You wanna explain?” she asks.

“Can I have my wallet back?”

She shakes her head.

“How did you get in here?” I demand.

“You collapsed halfway through your door. Explain Emma to me,” she repeats.

I hesitate, see the resoluteness in her eyes. “My, uh… My mom had two

miscarriages before I was born. So when she saw I was a boy, she named me after a girl

because she thought the evil spirits would ignore me that way… Why were you going

through my stuff?” I snap, more embarrassed than angry.

Moments of humiliation in my youth flit across my memory. “Emma Zhou!” the

teachers would call. To which I’d reluctantly reply, “Here.” Always the disbelief

followed by giggles and the disdain of boys who’d bully me with fists and cruel chants.

She smiles, amused. “You wanna go to the Great Wall?”


“Right now. A bunch of us are going to party.”

“But it’s–” And I check the time. “2 a.m.”

“The night’s just begun. Get changed.”

There’s a group of about fifteen from the hotel. Lily and Rick join our taxi. Lily used to

be a phone sex operator in the States until her job got outsourced to Thailand. Now

she’s an animal activist whose favorite book is Animal Farm. “It’s such a moving

portrayal of how cruel humans are to animals and how they can stand up for their

rights,” she says.

“I think the book was actually abou–”

“I know, everyone’s already told me it’s really only about the mistreatment of

farm animals. But I think it extends to all nature. You like it, right?”

Rick’s a French hippie posing as a Brazilian food critic who can’t stop hiccupping

because he drinks wine and chews gum at the same time.

Outside our cab, there’s convoys of trucks from Inner Mongolia and Hebei floating

between cities like dead whales carried by convex currents.

Sarah says she grew up raising lizards in Texas, her dad a taxidermist who loved his job

too much. She studied biology in college, took part in an exchange program helping

impoverished farmers in rural China. Been traveling all over Asia since.

We arrive at the Great Wall (Changcheng), an interminable road that’s barely visible in

the dark. Alien trees abound. I hear loud rave music. There’s a massive tent sprawling

over parts of the wall. It’s a nightclub and there are thousands of people inside.

The club incorporates the Wall so that the primary dance floor is on top of it. A

girl at the front door throws up in her Gucci bag, guys wear sunglasses in the night,

waitresses dress in skimpy lingerie and fake armor. We climb up a watchtower, buy

cocktails. The bricks are covered with graffiti and silhouettes of dancing couples.

It’s muggy and hot out, but Sarah’s wearing long sleeves and a blue dress. I’m in jeans, a

silk black shirt, a fake Rolex I bought at Hongqiao for two bucks.

“Did someone really commit suicide in my room?”

She nods.

“Why?” I ask. But as I do, a moth the size of my palm lands on my shoulder.

It’s iridescent, a swirl of beige and vermilion. I flinch.

“You scared?”

“It’s huge.”

She laughs, takes it from me. “When moths burn themselves in candles and

bulbs, it’s because they mix it up with the light from the moon.”

“Why would they need light from the moon?”

“They use it to navigate. But most never reach their destination.”

“Why’s that?”

“They burn to death in distractions.”

“You really sell dead moths?” I ask.

“You really sell vitamins?”

The drinks are strong. “I’m an accountant.”

“And I’m a failed violinist,” she replies. “You enjoy your work?”

“I love numbers, especially imaginary ones,” I say. “You realize the fall of

society began with the concept of irrational numbers?”

“How so?”

“It quantified madness.”

Should I have said, legitimized?

“What are you thinking about?” she asks.

“Do blind people have porn?”


I explain how that question compelled my cousin, Amanda, into a ridiculous

pyramid scheme involving “malleable silicones.” Ended up melting into excess blubber

as she became the prisoner of her own volition, living in the prison cell of an unpayable

mortgage and a moral repugnance designed to earn brownie points in heaven.

All possible by tricky accounting legerdemains, perpetrated by none other than…

Her best friend– me. We partied across Europe, backpacked through Mongolia, cruised

down the Amazon. We got a gig in Hong Kong as “tofu mascots,” sold makeup for

pennies in Mexico, and vowed to eat a hamburger in every city in the world.

After her financial collapse, she punished herself through food, created a penitentiary of

sugar as a moat around her life, shielding her from the bitterness of salt and failure.

“What about your music?” I ask Sarah.

“A true musician doesn’t use passion– she transcends it.”

“You did that?”

“I got mired in the staccatos.”

I’ve always had a hard time with accents, and my Mandarin is horrible. But more and

more Chinese talk to me in Mandarin and I don’t know what they’re saying. Dance

areas are separated by different styles, a tango section to the west, a salsa mix in the

north. I show Sarah some moves and she spins around me like a mispivoted merry-go-

round, orbital, then rectangular.

“What were some of your staccatos?” I ask.

“Misplaced desire,” she replies, “and frail fingertips.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s this story,” she starts, stumbles from drink. “A heavenly moth fell in

love with the sun. Half of every day, they’d lay together, and her wings would cover the

sun so it’d turn into night. A couple thousand years passed, and the sun fell in love with

another moth. The first moth was cast out. But she still loved him and orbited the

Earth, content reflecting the sun’s light to the rest of the world.”

Some of the tango dances have us leaning into one another, and she warns me, “I’m not

looking for a boyfriend.”

“What are you looking for?”

She smiles. “A pet.” She bites my shoulder, a painful stab that makes me jump

back, her teeth clenched.

“That hurts,” I groan.

She lets go.

“You have a favorite type of pet?” I ask.

“Pugs,” she replies. “I adore them.”

Around 4:32 a.m., Lily tells us we’re moving to our next stop, an outdoor concert for a band

that’s inside one of the old guard towers.

All their songs are about local crimes; a man who blew up public

toilets, a girl who replaced shampoo in hair salons with bleach.

One of Sarah’s friends, Zheng Lei, has bought her flowers, asking nervously

how she’s doing. He’s wearing an expensive suit, thick glasses. They prattle a few

minutes before she excuses herself, wanting to go rollerblading. Outside, there’s the

echo of drums and electric guitars blending with a choir of crickets.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” she says. “Lei would be following me the

whole night if you weren’t.”

“He likes you?”

“He asked me to marry him on our first date.”

“What’d you say?”

She gives me a dubious look and says, “A couple days before we were supposed

to meet up for the first time, it started snowing like crazy. He gave me a call, told me

he’d take me to work. I told him, it’s alright, I don’t wanna burden you, but he said he

was already waiting downstairs. He brought up breakfast and that was our first ‘date.’”

“He’s devoted.”

“Is that the most important trait in a lover?”

“What do you think?”

“Lei owns a bank, is a multimillionaire, and is good-looking. But he’s soooo

boring. All he ever talks about is money.”

“Being interesting is the key?”

She shakes her head. “Voluntary blindness.”

We rent rollerblades and even though the Wall is steep with high slopes and sudden

drops, we ride across as fast as we can. I stumble after a few meters, alcohol making my

balancing act tenuous. She laughs at me and swirls around, making bold brushstrokes

with her legs. I jump up, fall again. Get up and race after her, lose control, drop too

quickly, and crash into the side of the wall. “Ow…”

She laughs again. “You have really short legs.”

I give chase across the Great Wall but it’s hopeless. She rides through like an

electrical impulse on axons and dendrites.

“My daddy used to go rollerblading with me when I was a kid,” she says. “Hey! Mr.

Short Legs. Are you listening to me?”

“Did you just call me–”

She smiles. “I heard you can’t really see Changcheng from space.”

“It’s supposed to be like looking at tooth floss from two miles away.”

“You use tooth floss?”

“Sometimes. You?” I ask.

“I think it should be a law. Tooth floss before sleep every night.”

“What would that achieve?”

She giggles and pecks me on the lip. “You know how many times that’s ended

in disaster ’cause of bad breath?”

Zheng Lei rents a limousine for the others, but Sarah insists we sneak away on our own

cab. “Something I wanna show you.”

About fifteen minutes from the Wall, there’s a decrepit cave lit by torches.

There are scrolls lying on the ground, some ancient columns with chipped red paint.

Inside is an old man covered with gray hair, humming to himself.

“He’s an old Taoist monk who’s been meditating here for thirty years,” Sarah

explains. “He hasn’t eaten a drop of food the whole time.”

“Sounds miserable.”

“Moths don’t eat, you know that? They’re born, they transform, they fuck, then

they die.”

“I admire their purity.”

When we arrive back at our hotel, it’s morning. We stumble up to her room. I kiss her,

she kisses me back. “Sorry, I gotta use the restroom real quick,” I say. I use it, return.

She’s passed out on her bed. I lie next to her and fall asleep.

My eyes open around 3 p.m. She’s still asleep. I notice her arm sleeves are rolled up.

There are scars underneath, her flesh dark and twisted, burned to cinders– it’s hard to

look at.

“It was a cooking accident ’cause I burned my fingertips,” she suddenly says. “I

got out of the house but my arms were burnt. The whole house went down. My daddy

went back in to try to save my violin and burned to death.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You can leave now,” she says.


“Just go.”

I wait for her at night. The next two days. Finally, I see a maid enter her room.

“The girl here checked out yesterday,” she tells me.

I’m disappointed. But I understand. We all have our costumes. None of us likes to be

found out.


Soo Jin Lee (Fiction Editor): Peter Tieryas Liu’s meditation on connection and authenticity features characters who indulge in distraction, expats traipsing through a Beijing refracted through hollow lenses. Sarah Chao, the object of Emma’s intrigue, remains unknown to the very end, their relationship cut short just as Emma can make out the edges of the true Sarah. The story’s final sentiment, however—”None of us likes to be found out”—calls into question just who is the truly unknown character, and to whom: Sarah to Emma, or Emma to the reader?


This piece appeared in Indiana Review 33.2 in Winter 2011.

Peter Tieryas is the author of Mecha Samurai Empire (Ace Penguin RH) & United States of Japan, which won Japan’s top science fiction award. He’s written for Boing Boing, Kotaku, Tor, Verge, and the Indiana Review. He was also an artist at Sony Pictures & Technical Writer for LucasArts.