‘Little Eyes,’ by Samanta Schweblin: An Excerpt
Beijing — Lyon
Cheng shi‑xu had bought a kentuki card and established a connection with a device in Lyon. Since then, he’d spent over ten hours a day at his computer. His bank account balance was shrinking every day, his friends almost never called anymore, and all the fast food was burning a hole in his stomach. “So this is how you’re going to let yourself die?” his mother asked him over the phone, perhaps because she really had been working on her own death for years now, though he was always too busy to notice. For over a month now, though, Cheng Shi-Xu had been focused on something new: he was experiencing the birth of a great love, perhaps the most authentic and inexplicable of his life.
The first thing that happened was that he met his kentuki’s keeper. Her name was Cécile and she had received him on her fortieth birthday; he wasn’t exactly a birthday present, but Cheng Shi-Xu didn’t know that yet. As soon as the K7833962’s connection was established, she picked him up and carried him into the bathroom, then held him up in front of the mirror, and then Cheng Shi-Xu could see everything. He was a panda kentuki, covered end to end in fuchsia and turquoise felt. On his belly, in gray plastic letters, were the words Rappelez‑vous toujour. Emmanuel. Cheng Shi-Xu thought that Cécile was very pretty. Tall and thin, reddish hair, and a face covered with freckles. She smiled at him in the mirror.
“Welcome, my darling,” she said.
Cheng Shi-Xu understood a fair amount of French, so he went to the controller’s settings and deactivated the translator.
[ Return to the review of “Little Eyes.” ]
Soon he discovered that the rest of the apartment was just as large and sophisticated as the bathroom, and that it was a kingdom Cécile had generously arranged so her kentuki could have total autonomy. She had placed mirrors at floor level, made small openings—the kind often installed for pets—in the doors and windows that led out to the balcony, and installed a long ramp, hidden behind the three-person sofa, that went from end to end at the height of its broad leather armrests; Cheng Shi-Xu learned to navigate it easily.
Cécile imposed her rules from the very first day without an ounce of shyness, counting out each law on her fingers.
“You can never come into my room. If I come home with a man, you don’t leave your charger. If I’m sleeping, or sitting at that desk, it’s forbidden to move around the house.”
Outside of those rules, Cécile was attentive and fun. Sometimes they went out on the balcony and she picked him up to show him Lyon. She pointed out the plaza where the world’s first black flag of anarchy had been hoisted, and the old storefront where her family’s silk shop had once been, and she told him other stories of bombings and revolutions that her grandfather had once told her while standing on that very same balcony.
Cécile and her apartment were a perfect world, and even so, the best of all was in the apartment facing them, the great kingdom of Jean-Claude, his kentuki-keeper’s brother. Sometimes they went over to have tea together. Cécile would prepare it, but they would drink it in Jean-Claude’s living room while he played the piano.
It was in that apartment where Cheng Shi-Xu met the woman of his dreams.
The first time he saw that living room, he immediately noticed that the glass doors had the same openings as Cécile’s apartment. Jean-Claude’s own panda kentuki was waiting a little farther in, beside a large orchid’s flowerpot. He was surprised to see that stamped on its belly were the same words as on his own: Rappelez‑vous toujour. Emmanuel. Her name was Titina—or that’s what Jean-Claude called her—and she had only one responsibility, which she fulfilled reluctantly. After playing the piano, her master—who was always barefoot— sat down on one of the armchairs across from Cécile to chat and drink tea, and he stretched his legs out in front of him. Then Titina had to rub his feet with her plush body, brushing against them slowly from side to side. Cécile watched them and laughed. If Jean-Claude lost interest, Titina quickly moved away from him toward some other corner of the house. Cheng Shi-Xu followed her like a shadow.
Over time they had managed to communicate. Jean-Claude had painted an alphabet on the bathroom floor, and Titina glided over it with grace. It was a dance that looked lovely when she did it, but that, when it was Cheng Shi-Xu’s turn, he performed awkwardly. She wrote in French, he wrote in English. They understood each other perfectly.
“my-name-is-kong-taolin,” wrote Titina. “i-live-in-da-an-in-taipei.”
Cheng Shi-Xu also told her his name and home. Then he spelled out:
“letters-on-belly . . . ?!”
Titina told him more family stories. When Cécile and Jean-Claude were little, their father used to buy them guinea pigs, but the animals barely lasted a year living in their cages. Emmanuel knew that his children were grown and soon he wouldn’t be with them anymore. He wanted to give them, at the end, a pet that would last them their whole lives.
The echo of the kentukis’ little motors dancing over the tiles were still resonating in Cheng Shi-Xu’s head hours later when he fell asleep in his Beijing apartment, thinking over the things they’d said. The next day he googled Kong Taolin. The first character was the same as in “Confucius,” and although Cheng Shi-Xu didn’t really know what that augured, he was sure it could only be a good sign. There were dozens of Kong Taolins in Taipei, but only one of them seemed to live in the Da’an neighborhood. She was chubby and had a beautiful smile. He printed the photo and taped it up beside his screen.
Soon Titina gave him her e-mail address. She spelled out the first part of her address on the keyboard of the bathroom, and spent a good while going around in circles, struggling with the obvious fact that there was no @ sign she could point to. Finally she continued her phrase with an at, though it wasn’t until she added the .com that Cheng Shi-Xu realized what it was all about. He jotted it down in Beijing, and in Lyon he danced awhile on the alphabet until he managed to write his own. As soon as teatime was over and he and Cécile went back to her apartment, he opened his e-mail and wrote to Kong Taolin. He signed off with a confession: “I hate that you have to scratch his feet.” She answered: “I hate it, too, but in exchange he’s teaching me French, two hours every day. I’m learning fast. I’m going to take a test, and once I have my certificate, I’ll move to France to work and leave my husband.” So she was married. The news was a blow for Cheng Shi-Xu, though he was grateful for her honesty. She wrote him again: “I love it when you visit. That’s what I do all day long: wait for you to ring the bell.”
He thought that he could help her with her French, too, since he understood Cécile perfectly, but he didn’t mention that. She told him she sang for commercials, and she sent a video of a gum advertisement. There was no image of her, but her voice trilled at the beginning and end, and he thought it was sweet and brilliant, a voice even softer than the one he’d imagined for her.
[ Return to the review of “Little Eyes.” ]
Cheng Shi-Xu searched for Cécile’s building on the map. It was easy because he remembered the reference to the plaza and the first black flag, and the place where the family’s old silk goods shop had been. It didn’t take long to add things up, and he jotted down the address on a piece of paper. He wanted to send Taolin a bouquet of flowers. He thought he would need the siblings’ last name, and that it shouldn’t be difficult to find, although a second later he imagined Jean-Claude’s astonishment when he received the flowers. He could add a card that said For Titina, but why send flowers to a kentuki who couldn’t hold or smell them? And Jean-Claude wasn’t like his Cécile; he wouldn’t bother to put them in a vase and leave them on the floor where she could see them. He had to come up with some other kind of gift. What if he kept his plan for flowers, but sent them to her in Da’an? The idea made him sit up straighter in his chair; he googled her again to try to find her exact address. No luck. He woke up his kentuki in Lyon—in the afternoon he usually had it sleep for a while on the sofa’s armrest—took the ramp down to the floor, and looked for Cécile. He purred softly a couple of times, and she knelt down and patted his head.
“What’s up, big boy?” That’s what she called him.
Cheng Shi-Xu didn’t like Jean-Claude, but how he longed for that keyboard he’d drawn in the bathroom for Taolin. Why didn’t Cécile do something like that for him? Didn’t she want them to talk? He purred a couple more times, aware that his sounds were useless. Finally he tired of trying, turned around, and rolled away.
They started to write each other several times a day. Taolin told him a lot about her father, whom she missed intensely. He’d been good to her, even while he’d also been a dark official in the Cultural Revolution; he’d done things she had never been able to understand. Compared with those stories, Cheng Shi-Xu’s family past wasn’t so interesting, but Taolin seemed delighted to hear the most ordinary details of his life, like how one summer Cheng Shi-Xu went with his mother and aunt to the National Art Museum. So he sent her an e-mail with photos from the trip, including shots of his mother and aunt. She spent several e-mails analyzing them, until she finally seemed to gather the courage to ask him whether, among all those photos, there wasn’t one of him.
Cheng Shi-Xu almost didn’t sleep that night, thinking about whether or not to show her his picture. All he knew was that, at almost forty years old, he still hadn’t been able to figure out whether he was a handsome man or not. He sent pictures; she didn’t answer. The next day, at teatime and after the foot rub, Titina fled to the bathroom, and he followed. She moved quickly over the keyboard.
“yo-lok-like-my-dad,” wrote Titina, and she winked an eye. “lets-talk-on-skype,” he said.
She agreed. But that night, in Beijing, Cheng Shi-Xu waited in front of the computer until past two in the morning, and Taolin never appeared. The next day there was an e-mail from her waiting, and when he opened it he read:
“If you write my wife again, I’ll send someone to break your face in.”
He sat looking at the message; he couldn’t remember ever receiving anything so violent in all his life. He didn’t know whether to answer or not, whether he should be worried about Taolin, or if she even knew about the message. In Lyon he went down his ramp and into Cécile’s room. He was breaking all the rules when he tried to wake her up—she’d gone to bed hours earlier. But he was insistent, banging his kentuki against the legs of the bed. Cécile shifted under the sheets, annoyed, and she threw a pillow at him that left him wheels up. Some seven hours later, in Lyon’s morning, Cécile finally picked him up and carried him to the table in the kitchen. She tried to talk to him while she made coffee.
“What’s wrong with you, big boy?” she asked. “Do I have to punish you like a dog? What the hell happened to you last night?”
She asked question after question and didn’t seem interested in any kind of response. Cheng Shi-Xu moved desperately over the table, trying to say: We have to go to Jean-Claude’s! I need his keyboard! Something very bad might have happened to Taolin!
It was afternoon by the time they finally went over. When he entered Jean-Claude’s apartment at Cécile’s heels, he saw Titina move away from him instead of coming closer, as usual. He realized that seeing this was even more painful than the message he’d received, and even so, he needed to know if she was all right. He rallied, and waited patiently beside Cécile. The siblings talked for a good while, Jean-Claude played an endless piano piece, and then he stretched out his legs and called to Titina, who came shyly over. When the whole foot-rub ordeal was over, Cheng Shi-Xu tried to head to the bathroom with Titina, but she didn’t follow him. He came back and tried to push her. They struggled until Titina screeched, and Jean-Claude was beside them in a single bound; furious, he picked her up from the floor. He turned back to his sister, asking for explanations. He didn’t hold Titina with affection, not even like an animal, but instead stuck her under his armpit like he was hauling home a watermelon from the market.
“I want that thing out of my house,” he said, pointing to his sister’s kentuki.
For the next week, Cécile went to tea at Jean Claude’s alone. Cheng Shi-Xu was left behind, squeaking and banging against the door, disconsolate. A neighbor would occasionally come out of her apartment and knock on Cécile’s door. Then Cheng Shi-Xu was quiet for a while and tried to hold out as long as he could, until his indignation grew again.
Then the most horrible thing Cheng Shi-Xu had experienced in his entire life happened. Something so unfair and inexplicable that he couldn’t talk about it, not even to his mother, who still hadn’t managed to die and would have greatly enjoyed hearing a good story of someone else’s misfortune. One night—an evening when Cécile had gone out— Jean-Claude came into his sister’s apartment using his own key. He turned on the lights and looked all around, searching for the kentuki. His eyes were hawklike, his movements more aggressive than ever, and instead of squeaking toward him and pleading for the bathroom keyboard, Cheng Shi-Xu’s instinct was to take cover. He slunk behind the sofa. There were better hiding places, but he was afraid that if he moved any more, the sound of his motor would give him away.
Jean-Claude looked for him in the living room, calling to him, and it wasn’t long before he found the kentuki. His greeting was suspiciously friendly as he sat down across from Cheng Shi-Xu, on the other sofa. His right hand held a bag, which he set down to one side.
“I was chatting a bit with the lady’s husband,” he said, “and we’ve come to an agreement.”
Cheng Shi-Xu wondered if he was talking about Taolin’s husband—but why would Jean-Claude be in communication with that man?
“All right, Don Juan, are you following me?” All he could do was listen, so he rolled closer. “This is what we’re going to do: Taolin needs to focus on her French classes, and I need for people I don’t like to stop trespassing in my home.”
It was the first time he’d heard her name from Jean- Claude’s mouth—he always called her Titina. Hearing “Taolin,” from Jean-Claude made Cheng Shi-Xu think maybe the two of them also wrote to each other.
Jean-Claude reached into his pocket for something. He pulled out a screwdriver and knelt down before the kentuki to show it to him with a conceited elegance.
“I bet you can’t guess who sent this from Da’an?” he said. He left the screwdriver on the floor and took a white box from the bag. It took Cheng Shi-Xu a moment to recognize it. In fact, he didn’t understand what was going on until Jean-Claude opened the box and pulled out a kentuki.
“But we can’t let Cécile feel sad, now can we?” he said. The kentuki in the bag was identical to Cheng Shi-Xu’s, the same fuchsia and turquoise felt panda, the same belly with the same gray plastic lettering: Rappelez‑vous toujour. Em‑ manuel. Although Cheng Shi-Xu tried to get away as fast as he could, Jean-Claude didn’t have to make any effort at all to catch him. On his screen in Beijing, the Lyon living room shook violently, and in the speakers, his own squeaks sounded hysterical and metallic. As Jean-Claude struggled with the screwdriver to open the kentuki’s base, Cheng Shi-Xu moved his wheels from one side to the other, but he knew there was nothing he could do. He heard the sound of plastic giving way, and then Jean-Claude’s stilted voice saying, before he definitively pulled out the battery: “Now we’ll love you more than ever, Don Juan.”
A second later, the controller on his computer closed and a red warning announced, Connection ended, followed by the K7833962’s total connection time: forty-six days, five hours, thirty-four minutes.