In those uncertain months following the implosion of the World Trade Towers, the expatriate community seemed to grow the least bit tighter. Though the security tightened in Beijing, being an expatriate still afforded a certain amount of respect, given that our tax remittance filled the coffers of the Middle Kingdom. It was on a frigid Friday night that I met Tony Abdullah, a freshly made friend, in the El Centro Bar for a drink. When I arrived, he was already standing there, holding that trademark Johnny Walker Blue Label in his left hand, shaking hands, patting people on the back, and, generally acting like he owned the place, his long-term girlfriend, Gwen, standing at his side. On the other side was one of Tony’s friends I hadn’t met, a tall, middle-aged male, whose scalp was just beginning to show like the frost on a car window. Before Tony had a chance to introduce us, he shook my right hand and said, “Hi, I’m Matt Kavanaugh. Tony has told me a lot about you.” He knew I was a doctor, a general practitioner, working in a private clinic. “How long have you been in Beijing?”
“Since July, two months before the Towers came down.”
“You’re one month up on me.”
“How’d you get to know Tony?”
“How does anyone get to know Tony? He’s a traveling carnival.” It was hard to ignore the Chinese beauty, arm-in-arm at his side. I tried to look away.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude. This is my girlfriend, Claire.” Taking her arm out from under Matt’s, she held it there for me to shake.
“I work as a paralegal in a big law firm here.”
Matt was one of those expatriates in China always carousing, always looking for younger, winsome ladies that cropped up wherever you surveyed the streets of Beijing. Matt, Tony had told me, was an ex-fighter jock from the United States Navy, and in the few that I’d met, there’d seemed to be an idée fixe that centered around flying, and when they weren’t in the cockpit, chasing women. The smell of jet fuel must boost testosterone levels. I also think it had a lot to do with rekindling one’s youth.
Matt and Caroline took off to go to a restaurant while I stayed with Tony. “Matt has his hands full with that one.”
“You might say so,” replied Tony.
“Are they living together?”
“There’s only room for two in Matt’s bed.”
Time passed. Matt and Tony and I continued to meet frequently for a drink at El Centro and other watering holes scattered in the sprawling metropolis of twenty-four million. Almost always Matt appeared with a woman. For the longest time, it was Claire, but then he began showing up with other beguiling women, though none of them were as attractive as Claire. They were all slim and elegant; they were all tall and had long, flowing black hair. They all reminded me of Russian matryoshka dolls.
One night he showed up with a woman who looked plainer than the rest, who went by the name of Sandy. They came to the bar arm-in-arm. Just after being introduced to me, she turned to Matt and said, “I thought you were going to take me out to eat.”
Matt, in that soft voice he must have used with his English pupils, said, “I just wanted to get a drink first with Tony and Steve.”
“I wanna go now!”
“Just one drink.” Matt was growing irritated, a quality I never had seen in him. She removed her arm from Matt’s grasp and paraded down to the other end of the bar, like it was a fashion runway. When she reached the end of the bar, she spun around and strolled back, her arms crossed in front of her. “You didn’t say drinks.”
“No, I didn’t Sandy, and I meant to. But you shouldn’t be rude to our friends.” Matt took a deep pull on his glass of whisky, draining it. “Looks like I have to go guys.”
“That’s alright,” said Tony.
“Go, go,” I said. “Here’s to next weekend.”
Time passed. One more year in this ancient city was like another ring on a giant sequoia. It seemed that one night was a turning point for Matt. The women he came out with were older and more wizened. They were still pretty: they just weren’t Claire.
Then came a night when Matt was alone. We occupied three seats along the bar. “I’ve got a confession to make. I have a daughter.”
“You’re kidding,” I said. “How old?”
“I wish I was. She’s three.”
“We should be congratulating you instead of grilling you for the facts,” said Tony.
“Yeah, Matt, that’s wonderful news. You can pass off your writing genes to the girl. What’s her name?”
“Mandy. I can barely pronounce her Chinese name.”
“Do we know the mother?”
“There’s the rub. You do. You remember Sandy? I only slept with her once, I swear.”
“All it takes is once,” said Tony.
“Well, it gets worse. I’m convinced that she’s not just rude – she bipolar. You remember Sandy, the one who was so rude. The one that was upset at my coming to El Centro first?”
“I remember,” I said.
Tony merely nodded. “What makes you think she’s nuts.”
“I looked on the Internet. She fulfills almost all the traits of a manic-depressive. She’s either up or she’s down. When she’s down, she’s practically suicidal. When she’s up, she spends my money as if there is no end to it. She’s a pathological liar. When it would be easier for her to tell the truth, she makes up an elaborate lie that a blind man could see through. Whenever I go over to see my daughter, she puts me down, like she’s blaming me for all the woes life has thrown her way. I offered to send her to a psychiatrist. I nagged at her and I nagged at her. Finally, I got her to go see a woman psychiatrist at Vista. No sooner did the psychiatrist start the session then Sandy walked out on both of us. The psychiatrist and I talked about her behavior. She said that in her opinion, she’s bipolar.”
“Well, what are you going to do about it?” inquired Tony.
“I’ve set up a trust fund for Mandy. One that can pay for her college education. And I’ve sent money to Sandy for child-support. Whether she’s using it for herself or for the child is anyone’s guess.”
That night, Matt drank twice as much as he usually did.
It wasn’t a year later that Matt came to El Centro with a long face. Tony asked him what was wrong. “I’ve got another daughter. It’s by Sandy’s younger sister, Lilly. I slept with her one time.”
“You realize you’re the poster child for men getting a vasectomy?” said Tony.
“I deserve it.”
“It’s a girl,” I said. “What’s her name?”
“Wanda. And before you ask, she’s as crazy as her older sister. This time, I think she’s borderline. Again, I looked it up in the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual, the Bible for psychiatrists. She weighed in as being a bona-fide borderline personality patient. This time, Lilly didn’t walk out on the psychiatrist, she just got in a shouting match with her.”
“So what’s the old aviator going to do about it?” said Tony.
“Nothing much I can do. I set up the trust fund like I did for Mandy. I’ve sent her money for child support.”
For a while, things, I surmised, were hell for Matt. I felt for him, though I questioned why he didn’t have a vasectomy or use a condom. We still met for drinks a couple of times a week, but Matt wasn’t his cheerful self.
Then one Sunday afternoon, I got a call from Matt. He was calling as a father. “Mandy’s had a low-grade fever, her nose is running, and she’s had some loose stools. Sandy took her to a neighborhood clinic, but thinks she still needs medical attention. She acts like I don’t care when I tell her that I should just do what the doctor told her. She’s making me out like a bad father. Her mother, who’s as much a psycho as her daughters, is getting in on the act. Would you mind just taking a look at her?”
I met them at the elevator. Matt came out behind Sandy. He was pushing the stroller that contained Mandy who was playing with a toy. I took them in my apartment, did a cursory exam, and told Sandy to do just what the doctor earlier in the day proposed.
Matt, relieved, smiled. “You know it’s Mandy’s birthday tomorrow.”
“If Matt was a good father he would realize that it’s the day after tomorrow.”
Acquaintances tell me that Claire married only a few months ago, in the spring.
By Joseph Dylan