We’ll be posting our five readers’ entries this week, culminating in a podcast of the full event on Friday. To start, here’s Daniel Tam-Claiborne, author of the novel What Never Leaves, with his short story “If Not for the Melon.”
- William Wang, “The Antecedents of a Rodent”
- Qing Qing Chen, “The Reckoning”
- Jacques Qu, “Delivery”
- Rosalyn Shih, “Taishan No. 20”
We discussed it, and after a time decided on the watermelon. What if the landlord doesn’t drink, we wondered, or if he hates sweets. Watermelon was neutral, we reasoned; something we could all agree on.
My roommate bought it on her way home, one of those massive ones you see stacked in the back of a minivan idling by the side of the road. She took it on the bus to the landlord’s house herself – up front in the priority seats, her arms wrapped around the watermelon on her lap like she was three weeks from bursting.
The landlord wasn’t obligated to invite us over for dinner, but he said he wanted to. He couldn’t remember when he started doing it, but he had been renting out the apartment in Beijing for decades and it was just something he liked to do.
When he came to the door, he was wearing a baggy t-shirt draped over a pair of gray sweatpants like he had just woken up from a nap. We brought you this, my roommate said, gesturing to her midsection. He laughed a little when he saw it, as if gifting a watermelon revealed something innate about her character.
I’m sorry my house is such a mess, the landlord said. It wasn’t dirty so much as cluttered. We took off our shoes and were careful not to say anything about the boxes draped in table linens stacked floor-to-ceiling against every wall of the apartment.
We sat down and started drinking tea. When we finished, the landlord poured us each a measure of baijiu into the same glass. The watermelon sat between us in the center of the table, like an interloper, the characters in the name itself signifying its foreignness. 西瓜: western melon.
To friendship, the landlord said, before tossing his head back and emptying the glass. We drank ours down too, the clear alcohol slowly corroding the backs of our throats. Once more? he asked, holding the bottle out in front of us. But we both waved our hands, no, in front of our faces, albeit a bit too quickly.
The landlord withdrew to the kitchen. Most of the food is already prepared, he said, I just need to heat it up. In all, he had made six dishes: cabbage and mushroom, pickled cucumber, potatoes and cauliflower, stir-fried egg and tomato, pork ribs, beef seared in an iron skillet. He smiled when our eyes perked up: I wanted to make sure you ate well.
It was only when we could barely stand the sight of the still half-full plates that the landlord abruptly spoke out. The melon! It was sitting in plain sight for so long that we nearly forgot it was there. He came back from the kitchen brandishing a cleaver big enough to use as a movie prop and sliced off a large chunk for each of us.
The watermelon was juicy and sweet and perfect for a summer night. Before I arrived, I had never thought twice about spitting out my seeds, but in China I adopted the convention of poking them through with the end of a chopstick. It was common practice, but it still felt entirely novel to me. How funny, I thought, that this once foreign object no longer felt the least bit out of place.
When you go back to America, the landlord said, everything will be different. You will miss food like we have here. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. I looked down, tracing the shimmery liquid in the bottom of my bowl, newly studded with black seeds.
Yes, I admitted, though I wished it weren’t true. But we will always have watermelon.
Daniel Tam-Claiborne is currently studying Chinese in the Tsinghua IUP program and on a Gruber Fellowship working on a microfinance initiative. Check out his website Travel Breeds Content. (Image via.)