What We Talk About When We Talk About China

China, he had told her early on, was, back at the turn of the 18th century, a slang term for semen. This was how they had flirted. So when you heard those Restoration rakes going china this and china that, well, what they were really talking about was spunk.

The first time she’d swallowed his come, she’d smiled and said, Mmm, china.

By the time they got engaged, they could talk about patterns and place settings without either remembering that old joke, and when she started sucking someone else’s cock, they’d both forgotten a lot more than some lost shard of slang. It wasn’t, after all, the sort of thing that came to mind when you picked up your fiancee’s phone and found that, just an hour before, she’d texted the asshole she was cheating with. Who knew that the most hurtful sentence in the language was Mornin love let me kno when yr up?

There are times when the world seems fragile, prone to shatter at the slightest shock.

It was as though the jagged edge of some broken brittle thing had dragged across his open eyes, had scrawled across his chest the glyph that in some ancient tongue conveyed the cuckold’s agony, had been, finally, jammed with some force into his tender fundament. So that he could not be said to have chosen, really, because to choose would have required a capacity to recognize and reject alternatives. Alternatives to standing at the open door of their dining room and hurling at the door he had slammed after her each item, cup by cup and plate by plate, smashing their entire stock of collectively-owned china.

This had not made him feel better.

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The place where they meet now is not one they ever frequented. It’s a new spot, furnished with mismatched antiques. The coffee comes not in chunky mugs but, instead, in thin-shelled cups with delicate handles, flowers painted on the sides, and, sometimes, gold around the rim. China, he says, used to mean come. They are here, at her insistence, to work out, like business partners, the equitable division of their un-smashed common property. In Wycherley, he says, or Congreve. The desultory buzz of the café holds them like handfuls of excelsior. She looks brittle, make-up not quite up to making her china-doll face flesh-like. Not Rochester; he wouldn’t condescend to euphemism. As if prone to shatter. How could you do that to me? How?

It wasn’t about you, she says.

This does not make him feel better.

Times when the whole world seems to be made of the same frail stuff as the grandmotherly teacup he slams on the tiled table-top, or the phalanx of bisque-fired faces that surrounds them now like the terra cotta warriors that protected Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor. In the starched silence after the shattering, he impotently sops at spilled coffee, shrugs and blushes, mutters Sorry sorry until, looking up, he sees the red tear that has formed, that is falling, where a fragment of shrapnel has nicked her just below one eye.

China used to mean something, she says. But I’ve already forgotten what it was.

Front page image by suttonhoo.

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