Steam rose from the soy milk of breakfast carts. The first street vendors were rolling out their tarps, setting up displays of plastic trinkets, fake handbags, crate after crate of bootleg movies. Alva nodded to the DVD man, who raised a cigarette in silent salute. With My Chemical Romance blaring from her earbuds, Alva could almost forget she was walking to school at 7 a.m. on a Monday morning, away from the apartment she now shared with the strange man.
Pirated CDs and DVDs were her lifeline to adolescence across the Pacific. Over the years Alva had amassed a wealth of them, tenyuan discs she and Sloan purchased in bundles from street vendors, iridescent soundtracks and tales of blond cheerleaders and Upper East Side parties, loners and stoners and prom. She coiled her earpods and hid them in her pocket before she reached the gates of Mincai Experimental School, where no electronics were allowed. She straightened her Communist Young Pioneers red kerchief and joined the swarm of kids in the same hideous yellow-and-green polka-dot tracksuits. Alva silently cursed the sadistic uniform designer for the Shanghai public school system, this expert on neutering hormonal yearnings. For the same reason, hair could not hang loose on girls, lest the boys be distracted. A row of Discipline Delegates lined the school entrance, ready to write up any student who exhibited the slightest deviation from the appearance rulebook.
Alva slunk dejectedly toward her classroom, Nine (1). She’d been nominated as a Homework Delegate this semester: a shit job. It meant turning a blind eye to the frenzied copying sweeping through the classroom at 7:43 a.m., collecting the booklets at 7:45 a.m., reporting any homework stragglers by 8:00 a.m. Alva’s best friend in the class, Li Xinwei, was one of the few who enjoyed such duties. Li Xinwei wore a badge with three red stripes, meaning she was a school-level captain of the Communist Young Pioneers. Every morning she helped Alva file through the rows and collect the booklets.
Li Xinwei was already at her desk.“Was it that bad?” she asked after one look at Alva.
“He’s moved in.”
“To your mother’s bedroom?”
“Yeah. And there’s pee on the toilet seat now.”
“Please don’t tell me that.”
“And he wears long underwear around. Instead of turning up the heat. He says that’s what they do in northern winters.”
“Maybe he’s trying to save money.”
They started filing through the rows. “But he’s rich,” Alva said.
“Third strike this month, Zhang Shao,” Li Xinwei announced to a cowering girl. Then she shrugged at Alva. “Well, he does own the place.”
“He does.” Alva sighed as she put an X over Zhang Shao’s name.
They had come to the desk of Gao Xiaofan, a boy who was asleep every morning until one of them poked him with a pencil. Gao Xiaofan was the tallest boy in class and played basketball during lunch break. He returned with sweat-matted hair and visible veins on his forearms. That made him the closest thing Mincai had to a jock, albeit a renegade one. Gao Xiaofan was always summoned to the teachers’ office. He hung out with rich boys who snuck Game Boys into school and were rumored to drink and get into fights.
Alva knocked on Gao’s desk, right next to his head. His eyes opened, filmy.
“Homework,” she said.
Gao Xiaofan closed his eyes. “Another strike,” Li Xinwei said. “You’re hanging by next to nothing, Gao Xiaofan.” He stayed slumped, ignoring them. His shoulders filled out the yellow-and-green uniform. When Li Xinwei wasn’t looking, Alva quickly erased the X next to Gao’s name.
Only three subjects mattered for the Big Test—Chinese, math, and English. This was ninth grade, the last grade in the Chinese middle school system, which served little purpose besides yearlong prep for zhongkao, the high school entrance exam.
The teachers made deals so that the day’s art class turned into math practice, PE into English cram sessions, and geography into double Chinese. Today they were reading Ba Jin’s “Starry Night,” about the author’s journey at sea, the night silent and soft as he stared at the sky above. As they read aloud in unison, Alva closed her eyes and imagined being on the dark ocean, floating toward the greater world, away from the overcrowded classroom.
During the last period, Ms. Song, who was also Nine (1)’s homeroom teacher, walked in with a stack of graded history exams. She returned them by reading each score aloud, from highest to lowest. Alva got a 92. Four points had been deducted from a multiple-choice question she’d been sure she’d gotten right. It read:
Why did the Japanese capitulate during WWII?
a) The American atomic bombs
b) The threat of a Soviet land invasion
c) The relentless courage of the Chinese Communist Party
d) All of the above
Alva had, diplomatically, circled d. But Ms. Song was now explaining the correct answer was c, and c only. Alva seethed through the rest of class, snapping into alertness when the bell rang, and Ms. Song held them for additional announcements.
“School authorities are urging anyone with information on the circulator of corrupt materials to come forward.”
“HentaiLord,” someone whispered, and the class broke into murmurs.
“There will be consequences for all who are found to have kept silent,” Ms. Song said somberly.“And don’t pack up yet,” she added before nodding to the math teacher, who’d come in with another round of practice exams.
It was already dark by the time they left school. Li Xinwei’s compound was called the Age of Romance, while Alva lived in the Garden of Heavenly Peace. All around were towering residential buildings with names like Prosperous and Beautiful Family and Lavish Years of United Oceans. A banner outside the compounds read “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” but in this neighborhood there was little discernible socialism and lots of capitalist imports—an outdoor mall, a Carrefour supermarket, Nike stores, private gyms.
“They’re serious about hunting down HentaiLord,” Alva said to Li Xinwei as they walked by a breast-beauty spa promising massages and ointments for “fuller, softer chests.” As always, her friend looked away from the foreign model’s décolletage on the storefront poster.“You think they know?”
“They think it’s a boy,” Li Xinwei said.
“That’s so sexist. As always, they underestimate us.”
“It wasn’t us, it was you.” Li Xinwei’s eyes were narrow.
Li Xinwei was the only person who knew Alva was HentaiLord. Earlier in the semester, Alva had gone down an internet rabbit hole of Naruto fan fiction and found a trove of pornographic links. The panels were full of wet, slobbery breasts and massive veined penises. Alva had made a fake username, HentaiLord, and posted all the porn links on their class Baidu forum. The next day every boy in class was freaking out, asking who HentaiLord was with feverish reverence. At first it was hilarious. Then some Goody-Two-shoes girls told the teachers, and school authorities began a panicked hunt for the “corrupter.”
“Why did you do it?” Li Xinwei had wailed when Alva told her. She took pride in her three-striped badge, the symbol of the captain of the Communist Young Pioneers, and the captain was supposed to report all wrongdoing to the school discipline officer, Supervisor Liu.
“It’s only a little crack in the routine,” Alva had said, shrugging. “We deserve a diversion.”
What she didn’t say was how alien and violent those sex scenes had seemed to her, and posting the links felt like an assertion of power, turning her unease into the thrill of disseminating the forbidden. She had no idea how close those nasty hentai comics were to the real thing and hoped they weren’t. Sex education didn’t exist at their school, for that would imply sex existed, and that was the last thing Mincai wanted their students thinking about.
“Let’s go to the Starbucks,” Alva said. They’d all opened on the square in recent years—a Starbucks, a McDonald’s, a KFC, and a Subway. But Li Xinwei said,“It’s too expensive. And my dad won’t let me drink coffee. Let’s go to FamilyMart.”
The FamilyMart was overrun by kids in uniforms and smelled like fish ball stew.“If I were you, I’d surf the web less and focus on the zhongkao,” Li Xinwei said, examining a box of matcha chocolate sticks.
“I’m dying from all the practice tests. Aren’t you?”
“No,” Li Xinwei said. “That’s the difference between the strong and the weak. I can’t allow myself to think like that.”
“Right.” Alva filled a paper cup with brown broth and shrimp ball brochettes. “Huadong No. 2 High School, overseas high-school exchange, then Oxbridge.”
Li Xinwei had been obsessed with Oxbridge ever since receiving the purple Oxford English textbooks in first grade. She still loved repeating after the British-accented tapes, echoing the children with foreign names: Alice, Kitty, Ben. Emigration was an all-consuming, silent fever in Shanghai. Many of their richer classmates planned to apply abroad for college, too, though few said it out loud.
“And you’ll end up in America,” Li Xinwei said defensively.
“My mom wouldn’t move back, even before she was married. Now, with Lu Fang . . . it’s hopeless.”
“You always see the bad side of things.” “What’s the good side?”
The bell jingled as they exited FamilyMart. Li Xinwei shrugged.“My dad spends half his paycheck on New Oriental supplemental classes, Alva. I share a bedroom with my grandma. Is it that bad to have a rich stepdad?”
When she came home to Lu Fang’s empty apartment, Alva turned on all the lights, then dialed up the heat to maximum. Burn, burn, burn. It was Lu Fang’s money, and no one else was home to care.
She dropped her backpack on the floor and surveyed the space she used to think was hers. The apartment wasn’t only cold in temperature. It was also the decor—nude white walls, spindly redwood furniture, a scratchy navy couch that belonged to an office lobby. Nothing looked cheap, but nothing felt like home. Yet two years ago, when they’d first moved in, Alva had been grateful for all the space, for a bed with legs, for her own private room, for a nonsquatting toilet. It didn’t matter that they didn’t have enough belongings to fill the rooms, to decorate. We get to live here? She hadn’t believed their luck.
Alva was sprawled on the couch doing homework, the canned laughter of Friends blaring on the flat-screen TV, when the key turned in the lock. It was Lu Fang, coming home from work. “You’re here,” Lu Fang mumbled, as if she could be anywhere else.
“Where’s my mom?” “A hair appointment.”
“What are you watching?”
“It’s a little loud,” he said. He turned down the thermostat. “Is in front of the TV the best place for homework?”
Alva turned off the TV. After that, they sat without speaking until Sloan returned, her long blond hair blown out like a mermaid’s. “Dinner!” she announced too loudly and cheerfully. She’d brought takeout from a nearby restaurant, mu’er mushrooms swimming in oil with tenderized meat of unknown provenance. “Want to set the table, Alva?” Sloan asked.
“I have homework,” Alva said and took the white polyester container to her room.
She could hear the ceramic bowls clinking on the dining table. She opened her laptop, an old Lenovo ThinkPad Lu Fang had given her after the engagement, and logged on to QQ messenger. Gao Xiaofan was on there as 笑傲江湖, Smiling and Proud Wanderer, after the Jin Yong novel. His little dot shone green. She clicked on his name.
HentaiLord: are you going to the class trip
笑傲江湖: depends. What is it?
笑傲江湖: there’s no ice in shanghai HentaiLord: it’s at the mall, stupid
She’d started talking to Gao on QQ about a month ago, after HentaiLord had become a household name at Mincai. Not once had Gao Xiao-fan talked to Alva in real life, but she’d known he would respond to a fellow rebel. And he did.
笑傲江湖: will you be there?
HentaiLord: Maybe, maybe not
笑傲江湖: who are you? I promise I won’t tell
There was a rap at the door and Alva slammed the ThinkPad shut. It was only her mother, poking her head in.“We’re gonna watch a movie,” Sloan said. “I Am Legend. It comes out next month in America. Wanna join?”
“No, thank you,” Alva said. “I’ve already seen it.” She didn’t turn around and the door closed behind her with a soft, disappointed clink.
From from the book River East, River West © 2024 by Aube Rey Lescure, published by William Morrow on January 9, 2024.