September 2021

Back to Issue 10

The Naivete Of Assumption

By Karen Petersen

Kirsten’s mother had chosen to celebrate her brother’s passage out of elementary school into high school by eating dinner at the local Chinese restaurant. They had all been depressed after four whole days of rain, and a night out was looked forward to. On the way there her little brother piped up, “Did you know that to kill an octopus you have to stab it many times, and then reach up into it and turn it inside out? It’s only when you have its brains in your hands that you know it’s really dead!”

          “That’s disgusting Tommy! Now I’m not even hungry,” Kirsten shouted.

          “Listen, if you kids don’t stop it we’re going to go home,” her mother said, looking at them sadly. She was burnt out after a long day at work.

           As they sat down in the red booth, Kirsten could see the young waiters looking impertinently at her, a freshman in college, through the windows of the kitchen door. She stuck her tongue out at them when her mother wasn’t paying attention, and embarrassed, they withdrew. However, one of them was particularly taken with her and he came out of the kitchen over to their table to serve them. He was quite tall and fit, and spoke passable English. Throughout the meal he had given them exceptional service. Indeed, his devotion had been excessive. 

When Kirsten’s mother had asked for a match with which to light her cigarette, he had, with a great flourish, produced a gold Dunhill lighter and lit it for her. When Kristen’s brother had wanted more tea–he got it immediately, poured from a height of several feet, without a single drop spilled.

          “Did you see all his dragon tattoos when he rolled up his sleeves? So cool…” Tommy enthused, as the waiter walked away.

          Kirsten shrugged.

          All this special attention had made the family vulnerable, in a peculiar kind of way.  Kirsten and her brother were still relatively young, and her mother, originally from a sheltered family in mid-Western Canada, was now the head of the household since their father’s death five years before.  Her family wasn’t particularly well-traveled or wise to the ways of the world. Their strongest attributes were their openness and curiosity about things that existed beyond the sphere of their ordinary, suburban, American life. So it had escaped their collective notice that all this attention directed at them by a young, good-looking Chinese waiter was somehow inappropriate. It had gone decidedly further then the boundaries of fine service. Had her father been alive, he would have told the waiter to get lost. Men always understood one another when it came to these things, regardless of what culture they came from.

          As her mother went to pay the check, the waiter slipped over to Kirsten and asked, in flawed English, “How about date tomorrow night? I take tomorrow off.”

Flustered and flattered at the same time, for in a sense this encounter had become for the entire family an extension of armchair traveling, she was unsure what to say.  Her little brother grinned. It was all so unusual!

          Kirsten’s mother was returning and saw the waiter hovering by her. “Yes?” she said to him, inquiring with a friendly smile.

           “I would be honored to take daughter on date tomorrow night, with permission, madam,” he said, respectfully lowering his dark eyes.

          “Oh!” Kirsten’s  mother clearly didn’t know what to say. “Well,” she struggled, trapped by a confused notion of what a modern mother should be, “…well…” she said again, “she’s an adult. It’s not up to me now, is it? Ask her!”

           Kirsten could think of no reason not to go out with this man, other than he was a total stranger. But, she’d know how to contact him again, if need be–she had just met him this evening at his place of employment–surely that was something.

          “OK!” she said, and nervously gave him her address and telephone number.


They looked forward to his arrival the next day, but as he pulled up in their rutted driveway in a new gold Cadillac, they all squealed their surprise in unison.

          “A CADILLAC? What’s a Chinese waiter doing driving a Cadillac??” her brother asked, jumping around in excitement.

         Her mother shook her head, curiosity and misgivings evident on her face. “I don’t know. There’s obviously something about this guy that doesn’t add up. Maybe you shouldn’t go…”

But Kirsten, entranced by the strange image before her, shook her head resolutely with a teenager’s stubbornness.  “Are you crazy, Mom?  This is going to be a fascinating evening. I can’t wait!”

          “Hey, maybe he’s a spy!” her little brother piped up.

“Oh Tommy, shut up,” Kirsten said, good naturedly.

           There was a knock on the door and the waiter, whose name they had learned the night before was Bao-Tsien Li, stood quietly outside. He said hello to her mother and beckoned for Kirsten to leave.

          “Well, Mom…uh, see you later,” she said, excitedly stepping out the door into another world of possibilities.

           They said little on their way into New York City. He had curtly announced this as their destination as soon as she got in the car, and the four-door power locks clicked shut from the driver’s side.  She realized by his manner that their destination was not debatable and this nagged at her like a small pebble in her shoe.

           Bao drove fast, too fast sometimes, which made her uncomfortable. She also was beginning to wonder if this was all a crazy mistake–Bao, it turned out, knew a lot less English than Kirsten had thought and she was already getting bored and impatient.  The idea of having to talk the language of a simple child, slowly, all night long was not her idea of a hot date.  But it was fun sitting in the car. A big and powerful vehicle, with deep, cushy seats, she felt like someone special riding in it. After all, her mother had driven her around in a scruffy Dodge Dart for the last ten years, so this was a real treat.

         Since they weren’t talking much, Kirsten dozed off and woke up an hour later when they were in Chinatown, surrounded by Chinese people and shops written in Chinese characters, parked on a side street she did not recognize. Bao got out of the car and hitching his pants up in an irritating Latin, macho kind of way walked off, expecting her to follow him.

          He had gone into a small, dimly-lit Asian antiques store, and was speaking very quickly in Chinese to a grovelling shopkeeper when Kirsten came in. She didn’t know what they were saying but she didn’t like it when the shopkeeper winked at her. That impertinence again!

Bao motioned for her to follow him, and she walked stiffly past the leering shopkeeper through a maze of teak and mahogany carvings, fake Ming vases, giant ceramic vats with ugly dragons curling around their sides, and dusty silk robes made to order in Hong Kong. The jumble of cheap merchandise swirled around her.

          There was a door at the back. Bao knocked and a small porthole opened. Someone spoke gruffly in Chinese and Bao answered. The door quickly opened.

           As they walked in, Kirsten tried to keep her composure and not stare. The room was dim and smoky, beautiful calligraphic scrolls hung on the red lacquer walls. Chinese men and women everywhere were eating banquet style, laughing and talking loudly. A typical restaurant scene, hidden behind a store facade, except that the men all looked tough, with hard faces, cheap clothes, and phoenix tattoos on their arms. Their women had too much makeup on, like cheap Asian whores, the kind that frequented Patpong Road in Bangkok, and were dressed in tight silk dresses in garish colors with mandarin collars. Many of the men looked respectfully at Bao and nodded, ignoring Kirsten. The women all looked fearfully away from Bao and just stared resentfully at her. 

         Why would they want to be out with him? she thought.

          As they sat down, a waiter immediately appeared and bowed deeply. Bao spoke in Chinese and he disappeared.

          “What were you saying?” she asked, uncomfortable.

          “What? You don’t want dinner? I order good food!” Bao lit up a cigarette and laughed.

          “How do you know what I like?” she teased, vaguely annoyed.

          “Eh! Women easy to please,” he waved his hand dismissively and half turned away from her. He began to speak in Chinese to the man at the table next to them. He had a long scar across his face and for some reason Kirsten felt he must have been in jail at some point. He seemed very dangerous.

          Ignoring her completely, the two men talked until the food came, food which Kristen had never seen in any of the Chinese restaurants she’d eaten in before, but which was delicious nonetheless.

          Bao ate his meal quickly and excused himself, leaving Kirsten with her dinner half eaten. His hand lingered on her arm, then he left. The many Chinese around her closed in like a wall.  Their stares were relentless. She had been alone for almost 30 minutes when he returned.

          “Where the hell were you?” She was angry.

          “Business. Come, let’s go,” he shrugged his shoulders, turned and began to walk out.

          She’d made up her mind. She wanted to go home.  The evening was already too strange for her, and she was tired of the isolation created by the language barrier and his authoritarian behaviour.

          As they settled back into the plush seats of the car, he leaned over to kiss her. She pulled away, shocked, but it was only after a brief struggle that he stopped trying, a small victory for her which left him clearly irritated.

         “Don’t be funny,” he said. “I give you good dinner–I want good kiss, come on!” He leaned over and grabbed her again.

           “Stop it, I don’t want to give you one. I want to go home!” she said, leaning against the window and pushing him away.

           “You difficult one, you know!” he growled. “Well, we not leaving now. We go to movie.” He put his hand on her thigh.

          She removed it, feeling her anger rising, not only with him, but with herself. She stupidly hadn’t brought any money along and was, in a sense, his prisoner. She didn’t want him to know that, though.

         “Listen, I’ll go to a movie with you and then we’ll go home, OK?” she said,  placating him, giving it all she  had, smiling.

           He grinned and began to drive the car uptown. He slowed down near Show World on 8th Avenue and 42ndStreet.  “Where are you taking me?” Show World wa  a porno joint.

          “To good movie. After you be in right mood,” he said, matter of factly.

          “Let’s not start that again. I’m not going into this kind of movie!”

          “Come,” he leaned over again to kiss her.

          “BAO, enough! Enough,” she said, “ok?”  This verbal tussle went back and forth, back and forth for almost 20 minutes.

          God, what a jerk this man is, she thought, as he finally started up the car and roared back downtown to Chinatown, again temporarily vanquished. True to form, he got out and left her sitting there, almost an hour this time. When he returned he smelled of liquor and there was another man with him, a short, stocky, rough-looking man in his early 30’s who Bao said was called Chou. Chou got in the back seat and spoke to Bao in Chinese. Bao turned to her.

          “Sorry, Chou speak little, little English. He ask, what you study? I tell him you student.”

She turned around and smiled at Chou even though she felt like pushing him out of the car.  What was this creepy guy doing here, anyway, sitting in the back seat?  She began to feel a bit uneasy.

           “I’m studying music,” she said.  Bao translated. Chou nodded and spoke again. “He ask if you have good time? He said he buy us drinks.”

          “Well, I don’t particularly want a drink, I told you. I want to go home. Please tell him no thanks.” she stared at the dashboard sullenly, not meeting his eyes.

          Bao spoke to Chou and started up the car.  They drove uptown, on the East side, and as they passed the Midtown tunnel exit she knew they were going for a drink anyway. Damn him, she thought.

          They ended up in a little bar up in Spanish Harlem, run by a half Chinese, half Hispanic woman in her mid 40s.  Portraits of forgotten boxers lined the walls.

          “Hey honee, what’chew wanna drink?” the heavily made up woman leaned over the bar top and leered at Kirsten.

          “A coke would be fine,” Kirsten said, coldly, staring at the woman’s mint green eye shadow.

           Bao spoke to the woman in Chinese and the woman grinned. Just as she was about to give Kristen the coke a bottle of rum appeared and she watched in dismay as her drink was topped off with the liquor.

           “There, bay-bee,” it was set before her with a laugh. “You lucky woman. He big boss man.”

           Kirsten ignored the woman with disgust and looked away.  What a sleazeball, she thought.

          Bao sidled over to Kirsten and pinched her arm. “Come baby, drink up, we have real good time tonight.”  The woman winked. His friend Chou stood at the bar next to them, silent, staring at the boxing photos. 

          Yeah, fun times, Kirsten thought sadly.

          “If you don’t take me home now, this minute, I’m getting the police, do you understand?” she said, beginning to discover that fury and fear were great motivators.

          Bao shook his head. He turned around angrily, grabbed her arm and walked out with an exaggerated swagger. 

          What a ridiculous man, Kirsten thought, his sense of honour was so confused.

          They got into the gold Cadillac. As Bao and Chou talked avidly in Chinese, Bao started the car and sped towards the Midtown tunnel. Kirsten said nothing until they began to drive through it.

          “Are we taking Chou back to Long Island?” Mistrustful, she wondered what plan they had thought of now.

          “Yes, he coming to work in restaurant. I sell. New owner.”

           “What did you just say?” Kirsten asked suddenly, not quite sure she’d heard properly, but he remained silent as a stone.

          So he owned the restaurant, she thought, surprised. Where is he going?

She found herself drifting off to sleep. It was 2:30 in the morning when they pulled into the driveway, only it wasn’t the driveway to her house but to a motel.  Bao got out of the car and went into one of the rooms, leaving Kirsten alone in the car with Chou, who was asleep.       Accustomed by now to waiting for Bao, she sat in the car for another hour before deciding to go knock on the door of the room.

         There was no answer. She opened the door and Bao was in one of the beds, sitting up naked, his torso covered in tattoos. “You come here,” he said, patting the sheets.

          “No, I want to go home,” she said, staying by the door, frightened. She was still a virgin.

“No, you come here,” he said, starting to get out of bed.

          “NO!!!” she said, stepping outside and going back to the car.

          He came out another hour later, got in the car and gave her a cruel, strange look. He drove off without a word. They all got to her house at 5:30 a.m.. The lights were still on even though the sun was already starting to rise. She knew her mother would be awake, worrying.

          As soon as the car rolled to a halt, she opened the door and quickly got out, leaning back in ever so slightly to say to Bao sarcastically, “thanks for a terrific time!”  The car’s tires left behind a cloud of dust that swirled impatiently around the street lamp by her front door. He hadn’t even waited to see if she had reached the door safely; of course it would be unlocked—it was a rural neighborhood in a small town where everyone knew everyone else and there was nothing to steal.


          It was 9:30 in the morning the following week, or maybe around 10–Kirsten couldn’t remember exactly when she’d woken up. Her mother had already gone to work and her younger brother was away at summer camp.  She’d been sound asleep in her room until she felt a hand on her shoulder.

          “Tommy, stop it!” she mumbled, forgetting her mischievous little brother was long gone.  But when she felt the weight of someone getting onto her bed she suddenly became alert, and sat up, startled.

          “Bao!” she screamed in surprise and shock. His exotically tattooed, muscular nude body glowed in the early morning’s sun.

“I come for good time. You like. I know.” His face was sweating as he tore the sheets off her, his stiff cock bright red from the excitement. 

          She cried out in pain as he penetrated her. He finished quickly through her sobs, having spoiled and taken her, not to the heavenly ecstasies of love but rather down to a hell that she tried to displace by staring at an old spider web left behind on the ceiling. As he was getting dressed, he took a wad of $100 bills from the large roll he had and threw them on the bed. “This for you. You buy piano and study hard. Maybe someday I see you in newspaper!” He slapped his thigh with laughter and swaggered out, leaving her shaking with rage and impotence, and flushed with shame.

           She quickly tore the bloodied sheets off the bed and obsessively washed them over and over so that her mother would have no idea how her daughter been used for his sport and amusement.  Once they had finally dried she remade the bed and went back to sleep, sleeping heavily through her mother’s arrival home and even dinner. She was not ready to face the world.

That night around 3 am the backdoor motion detector light went on. She happened to be using the bathroom so she ran to the door terrified that Bao had returned. Instead, there was a large red fox standing steadily in the backyard by the door looking at her, and he was like a god of Nature who had come to visit. Although she’d heard tales, she had never seen a fox, much less one surviving in congested, suburban Long Island, and it was extraordinary. Where was the poor fellow’s burrow, she wondered? Perhaps in the small woods nearby.

          To her, his solemn presence, his clever survival, was a sign. Kirsten felt he had appeared to show her that she too, would, and could, survive all that had passed.

          No one ever knew what had happened. The event became emotionally buried in the puzzle box of her heart. She put Bao’s money in the bank and a few years later, quietly went out and bought the piano that sat in her New York apartment for many years—until recently, when she sold it to a friend. 

            And that was the end of it.