Where are you now? by Yuxin Zhao
That night on his way home, Linda Lou saw a man sitting on a big planter alongside the street. It was Karl Dickinson. He had seen Karl several times in the cafeteria at school. Karl sat there looking at the traffic, and he just stood there, thinking. He was not sure if Karl knew him. Should he go and say hi? What if Karl didn’t want to talk? That could be why he was sitting here alone at 2am. He had on a black shirt and black pants, and there was a leather purse laid next to him. It seemed like he had emptied the purse and lined up everything in it: a pen, some coins, a hand mirror, and a tube of lipstick. ‘That lipstick,’ Linda thought.
“Hi, Karl,” he said. “What’re you doing here?”
Karl looked up at him, hesitated, and said, “Who are you?”
“Linda. Linda Lou. We go to the same school and I’ve seen you once or twice. Maybe you don’t know me.”
Karl nodded slowly. Linda walked up and stood close to him, close enough to observe his face. Even at midnight the street was just bright as it was hours ago, but something felt different, something hard to name. He saw that Karl was not wearing any makeup. No lipstick.
“Linda, huh?” Karl said. “Why?”
“Why this name?”
“It’s not Linda. It’s Lin and Da, two characters,” Linda said, shifted his weight from one leg to the other. He gave Karl an understanding smile. “Everyone asks the same question.”
“So it’s like, some Chinese thing?”
“Yes. Uh, well… Yes,” Linda said. He thought about it. He thought about whether he should say more, explaining to Karl what those characters meant and why his parents decided on this name, like some of his other Chinese acquaintances always liked to do. But he didn’t continue with that. Instead he said, “You waiting for someone?”
“It’s a nice name, I like it. It’s vague,” Karl said, ignoring his words. “I mean, not that the name is vague in itself, but when I see you – your face, the way you carry yourself – it becomes vague. I’d wonder about it. I bet everyone would. I wish I could have your name.” He lifted his hand and patted Linda’s elbow. Linda looked away and blinked.
“Hell yeah,” Karl laughed.
“But why? I don’t understand,” Linda said. “Why’d you want this name?”
“I’m waiting for a woman,” Karl said. “I met her five hours ago, and she asked me to watch her stuff while she’s gone. We didn’t talk much. I’ve been thinking, what should I say to her when she comes back? I don’t know, maybe if I had your name I’d start with that.”
Linda sat down beside Karl. “It’s funny,” he said. “I’d love to have your name instead.” He thought it was funny, this man wanting his name and them sitting here together at this time of the day, like they were avoiding people and secretly exchanging their names. He breathed in the cold, sweet air.
“You do? Why?” Karl asked.
“Nothing big, really, not about women or all that. It’s about coffee.”
Karl rested his hand on Linda’s shoulder and laughed. “Coffee?” he said.
“You know when you go into a coffee shop and order your drink, and they ask for a name to write down on the cup? That’s what makes me want a different name.”
“I guess I feel you. It can be awkward for you.”
“Not just that,” Linda said. “No. People use whatever names they like when they go out and have coffee, and we all know that. So I’d stand there, telling them my name, and thinking, maybe they don’t believe me. Maybe they think I’ve picked this name for unimportant occasions like this although it is my real name.”
Karl touched his jaw, circling it with two fingers like he was searching for words. After a while he said, “Well, we can do this. Why not? You can have my name and I’ll use yours. Who cares? It’s no big deal. You just want it on your cup of coffee, right?”
“Well, actually, not just that. But all minor issues, right.”
“So use it. Tell whomever you feel like to. Tell them you’re Karl.”
Linda looked at Karl. He gripped his knees with both hands, eyes fixed on Linda. Maybe he really meant what he’d said, Linda thought.
“Okay then, thanks. But have you figured it out? Do you know what you’ll say when she comes back?”
“Yes, right. I’ve just come up with something. ‘I’m Linda, and I’m not gay.’ I’ll tell her it’s a Chinese thing. I mean, isn’t it a trend? It’d be cool, for sure.”
“I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. Just try it,” Linda said. “Tell me something about her.”
“She had red hair, that’s the first thing I noticed. But it could have been the street lights because they were yellow. Maybe her hair isn’t that red. Ah, I don’t know.”
Linda nodded. “I like red hair too,” he said.
“Give me your number,” Karl said. “I’ll call you tomorrow and tell you how it works out. If I don’t, you just call me. Here, take my number.”
“Okay,” Linda said. “Sure.” He sneezed, and rubbed his nose with two fingers.
“Excuse me,” he said. But Karl was not paying attention. His head was ducked like he was drifting inward.
Linda got home at 4. He made some coffee and went to bed without drinking any. When he woke up it was already late in the afternoon, and the room was dark. He lay on his bed. Far away from him a car drove by, the engine roared, and he could feel it scratching his spine. Then he heard the sound of rain, wave after wave of water slapping against the window. He remembered dreaming. He dreamed it was raining hard, and now he saw it was raining harder. He got up, went into the living room, and drank the coffee he’d made before going to bed. The hunger he felt was like some sort of itching. After the coffee he went to the bathroom.
While he was sitting on the toilet trying to take a dump, Linda thought of Karl Dickinson. Had he seen the woman he was waiting for? Did they talk? He stared blankly at the bathtub and applied a rhythm to his task: squeeze, loosen it, and squeeze, and loosen it. Maybe they were alone in a small room, the door shut. Everything was sweating, and no matter what they did they’d be wet all the same. Maybe that part of Karl was going in and out and in and out of that part of the woman. If she did have such red hair, it would shimmer like leaves in the wind. Maybe she would say, “Linda.” “Oh, Linda.” Red hair. Linda looked down at that thing resting between his legs. It was soft, did not have much to say. He wished he could imagine this: he had some part of the body so dull, so common, so not special that he would mistake it for Karl’s. That soft flesh between his legs, maybe. Imagine this: he was the one lying beside her and going in, and out, and in, and out. But he couldn’t. So he just sat there, squeezing, loosening it, and squeezing, and loosening it. When he felt something coming out he pressed his fingers against the wall.
Karl hadn’t called. Linda found the piece of paper with Karl’s number on it, not sure whether he should call. He was supposed to wait. He ate something and waited till midnight. He dialed that number and thought about what he should say. No one answered, and he dialed it again. Karl said, “Hello?” But he was still thinking.
“Hello?” Karl said. “Who’s this?”
Ask him about that woman, Linda thought. Ask him if he used your name, or, no, maybe something else. Tell him what they mean: Lin means arrival, and so does Da. Tell him this name is a double arrival, but it’s unclear where you’ve arrived. And Linda stood there holding his phone. “Where are you, Karl?” he said. “Where are you?”
Yuxin Zhao is a 22 year old Chinese girl from Chicago. You can find her on instagram.
Illustration by Raz (twitter).