Elementary Brioche

by Jacquelyn Zong-Li Ross

Jacquelyn Zong-Li Ross is a writer based in Vancouver, the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and art criticism have appeared in BOMB, Mousse, Fence, C Magazine, Kijiji, and elsewhere, and her chapbooks include Mayonnaise and Drawings on Yellow Paper (with Katie Lyle). She publishes books by emerging artists and writers under the small press Blank Cheque, and is currently at work on a novel and a collection of short stories.

Chapter 1. Where Has Tian Fang Gone

Tian Fang was just sixteen when he went to the Big City. He had a suitcase and was all alone and he got on a bus one day that was blue with an orange stripe, or else it was orange with a green stripe, he can’t remember, and after a couple of hours he got off the bus again and was a stranger in a place.

The city was not at all how he expected it would be. Instead of tall buildings, there were elevators with glass balls on the top that you could ride to if you had money. If you didn’t have money though, and most people did not, well then you could just stay at the bottom and live under a tree, which is what he did from Day One to Day Twenty.

He never told anyone back home where he was going or that he was even planning to go. Many years later, decades even, he liked to imagine they might still be wondering. Had he married someone on the other side of the ocean? Had he been struck by lightning in a field? Had he committed some kind of crime, bought a motorcycle, and disappeared into the mountains? Where had Tian Fang gone?

The truth is though that nobody wondered. In those days, nobody ever wondered where anyone else had gone because it was obvious when someone left that they had just gone to the Big City.

People did that sometimes, he thought. Gave others a chance, he thought.

On Day Twenty-One, Tian Fang got a job cutting hair at a salon at the university and moved into a bunk bed somewhere on campus. He cut hair there twelve hours a day, and for the remaining twelve hours he could be found either eating noodles at the canteen, reading magazines in his bunk, or sleeping. He still doesn’t know how he got that job, given that prior to that he’d never even held an electric razor. Boss must have been in a good mood that day and decided to give a stranger a chance, he thought. People did that sometimes, he thought. Gave others a chance, he thought.

The students whose hair he cut complained endlessly. About their heavy course load, about the air pollution, about their lack of parental funds. About the smudges on their glasses, and the greasiness of the food. About the slowness of Fantuan, delivering drink after drink full of melted ice cubes, and the trouble with people who came to the Big City only to eat brioche every day and never learn the fucking language.

All the while, Tian Fang just nodded. He thought it strange that no one ever complained to him about the haircuts he gave, even though he was quite sure they were very bad. Students, it seemed, cared a great deal about many things, but did not care too much about their hair.


Chapter 2. I’ve Been Here For More Than Two Months

Complements of duration are used to express the duration of an action or a state.

 

SUBJECT + VERB + COMPLEMENT OF DURATION

(1) She at university has studied for two years.
Soon Tian Fang can tell everyone he’s lived in the City for two months.

(2) He in China has lived for one year.
Never mind that Tian Fang every night reads magazines for two hours and checks Weibo for three.

(3) I everyday exercise for one hour.
He figures he will be working a hundred years to save up the kind of money he needs to live (and I mean, really live) in the Big City.

(4) He went swimming swam one afternoon.
He knows not at all what to expect of the x number of years otherwise known as the future.

(5) She studied new words studied for more than two months.
Tian Fang watches videos on Bilibili every couple of hours for a couple of minutes on how to use a razor.

(6) We here wait for her for a while.
He has never enjoyed but might have otherwise enjoyed everyday all day eating expensive imported brioche in his pajamas.


Chapter 3. I Came Right After Breakfast

Mary had loved Tian Fang from the very first moment they met. From the very first moment that she’d lowered herself into that squeaky salon chair and felt the swoosh of air over her lap as he came in with the plastic cape. When he fastened the cape around her neck, when he toggled the chair up and down, when he touched her temples to adjust the angle of her head …

Well!

Mary felt as if her heart might burst.

Mary had come to the Big City just like everyone else. And just like everyone else, she’d been surprised to learn when she arrived that she would not be immediately invited to live in one of those big shiny glass balls in the sky. Instead, Mary got a job cleaning the elevators up to them.

Her shift started at five in the morning, after the messy clubbing crowd got home, and ended around noon. She spent most of her time cleaning up vomit and cigarette butts from the elevator’s marble floor, unplugging the crunched Tsingtao cans from the air vent in the ceiling, and scrubbing peach makeup stains off the walls. She often wondered what people had been up to in there, the night before, but knew better than to ask. Instead, she swallowed off-label ginger capsules before and after each shift because the smell and the motion of the elevators made her sick.

There wasn’t even a view from the top. (It wasn’t that kind of elevator.)

The only thing that Mary did genuinely enjoy: the looping classical piano music that tinkled like stardust inside.

“What’ll it be,” Tian Fang asked, fluffing her hair. It was unclear whether or not he ever remembered her, though she’d been to the salon several times. It was Day Sixty-One in the Big City, and he seemed uncharacteristically distracted. A dog-eared copy of something called Contemporary Hair lay open on a stool beside him.

After a whole shift worked in the elevators, it was often difficult to conjure words. At least, that was the excuse she gave herself for being such a quote unquote kitchen slipper.

“Just a little trim of the ends—” she started shyly, as Tian Fang began snipping away. Really, she’d meant to show him the magazine cutout she’d brought with her in her purse, that picture that she’d secretly hoped might transform her into a supermodel. Instead, Mary just sat there, blushing and submissive, his scissors flitting clumsily about her like paper fans. After a whole shift worked in the elevators, it was often difficult to conjure words. At least, that was the excuse she gave herself for being such a quote unquote kitchen slipper.

Tian Fang asked her what she’d been up to that day (… caring, but not really caring).

“I came right after breakfast—” Mary croaked. Truthfully, she’d just gotten off work, and had eaten half a coconut bun on her way over. It was one in the afternoon.

He looked impatiently from the clock, to the magazine, to the back of her head.

“You must be a student.”

Mary observed her steamed crab reflection in the mirror. Well, she certainly would have liked to be a student. Yes, wouldn’t that have been nice! She certainly could not say to a person in the Big City that she cleaned elevators for a living!


Chapter 4. She Learns Well

“Actually I live in one of those glass balls,” she found herself saying, growing ever pinker as the words left her mouth.

“Ha ha ha. Me too.”

“Really,” she persisted, to her horror. “I live at the top of one of the elevators.”

Tian Fang smirked. “You don’t look like the glass ball type.”

“No?” She took a breath. “That may be true …”

What was she getting herself into now! 

“… but I, um …”

Tian Fang narrowed his eyes in the mirror.

“I won the keys in a game of Scissors Rock Cloth.”

Fuck!

Fuck fuck fuck fuck!

“Impossible,” Tian Fang said.

“Not really,” she flubbed. “When you think about it, the odds are fairly good …” She awkwardly mimed the signs, then immediately regretted it.

Still, Tian Fang was visibly disturbed. The way he was holding the scissors now—timidly, and with both hands—made him look like an adorable baby emperor. An adorable, clueless, bewildered baby emperor. It was impossible what she was saying, he thought. Absolutely impossible. But then again: if moving to the Big City didn’t make impossible things possible, what would have been the point of moving to the Big City?

Mary made a playful little rock with her fist and pretended to bash the scissors from his adorable baby hands.

“… Scissors … Rock … Cloth!”


Chapter 5. I Like Music More Than You Do

The comparative sentence is used to show the difference between two persons or things.

 

A (compared to) B + Adjective

(1) Planes compared to cars are faster.
Tian Fang compared to Mary is more romantic, idealistic (even if Mary is also romantic, idealistic).

(2) Watermelons compared to apples are bigger.
Mary compared to Tian Fang is prettier (but doesn’t know it).

(3) Elephants compared to pandas are heavier.
Tian Fang compared to Mary is more displeased with the social ladder on account of his louder and more impatient nature. (Tian Fang, more than Mary, is always in a rush.)

 

A (compared to) B + Verb + Object / Complement Of State

(1) You compared to him like learning new words more.
Mary compared to Tian Fang eats shrimp less. (It’s expensive, after all, the good kind, and she’s more frugal.)

(2) She compared to me likes music more.
Mary compared to Tian Fang likes music more. (Even if she wasn’t exposed to much music as a child, it washes over her in an abstract way, and in an abstract way, she understands it.)

(3) I compared to you tested on the exam better.
Mary compared to Tian Fang knows more than she thinks she knows. (While both came to the Big City with high expectations, Tian Fang still thinks he is on the verge of getting his lucky break … blah blah blah blah …)

 

The negative form of (compared to) is (do not have), not (not than).

(1) Panda does not have elephant as heavy.
Tian Fang does not have Mary as bad a job. (Not even close!)

(2) Elephant does not have panda as love of bamboo.
Tian Fang certainly does not have Mary as much nostalgia for Scissors Rock Cloth.

(3) Bamboo does not have panda as love of bamboo.
While both struggle with degrees of obsession, Mary does not have Tian Fang so outlandish a sense of romantic possibility … (see next)


Chapter 6. I Like Your Hair

Now of course Tian Fang was in love with someone else (what kind of story would this be otherwise?) and from Day Twenty-Nine to Day Eighty-Five, all Tian Fang could think was, If only he and the beautiful model from Special Edition Summer Issue Six Hundred and Fifty-Three of Contemporary Hair could meet one day and go riding the elevators up and down, well then this whole thing about moving to the Big City at the impressionable age of sixteen just to work for very poor money without any weekends or holidays would be well worth it in the end and he would be very grateful for having come.


Chapter 7. Your Name’s Great

Tian Fang blasted Mary with the blowdryer and chattered excitedly to her about his fantasy elevator date with the woman from the centrefold of Contemporary Hair, hoping she would help him meet her somehow. What a spectacular view of the Big City they would have up there! If ever he could find her in a city as big as theirs!

What was it like living at the top of one of those beautiful elevators, he wanted to know. Did she have a gym in her building, did she have a pool? Could she watch the sun setting every evening from her bed, her bath? And what kinds of things did she keep in her fridge? Did she go to the supermarket herself to do the shopping, or did she order things on Wai Mai? Did she have a personal assistant? Someone who managed her WeChat?

But Mary wasn’t listening. She was too busy staring out the window, a feeling of heartbreak invisibly filling her up like tap water into a solid-coloured water bottle. The feeling started in the hollows of her feet and moved up her legs, filling the cavern of her torso. Until eventually the feeling reached her neck and threatened to flow over.

“What’s your name again?” Tian Fang finally asked as Mary screwed on the lid, just tightly enough to prevent emotional seepage but loosely enough to produce human sound.

“Mary,” she croaked. “My name’s Mary.”

“That’s a great name, Mary,” he said, dusting the split ends from her cloak as she slumped from the chair to the counter to pay her bill.


Chapter 8. Mary Cried

Mary went directly from the salon with her bad haircut and heartbreak to her patch of grass under a tree and promptly started to cry. There she cried for three days and three nights under the protection of a very large leaf and, on the fourth day, stubbornly removed the leaf and went out into the world.

Things appeared brighter out there than they had been before. The glass buildings sparkled like the teeth of Western movie stars, and the river sparkled like Western teeth too. Polluted fish flipped belly up on the surface, especially in the financial district, but that part was just fine. The world was good.

Mary even showed up to work four days late and wasn’t fired, since no one was around at five in the morning to fire her. She returned to her old mop bucket routine and never heard a thing about it.

Someone had roped off one of the vomit-encrusted elevators in her absence to keep it from being used, while in the other, the beer cans had been kicked out into the lobby to make room for the riders. The piano track skipped on a trilling high C, but she didn’t have the care or authority to fix it. How long might this have gone on, she wondered, had she decided never to return? Would the good people of the Big City simply allow their home to decline into a permanent wasteland?


Chapter 9: The Bus Is Starting Up, So Let’s Hurry

The verbs (come) and (go) are used after some verbs to function as complements of direction. (Come) is used to indicate an action occurring towards the speaker / thing being referred to, and (go) is used to indicate an action occurring away from the speaker / thing being referred to.

 

Verb + Object  + Complement of Direction (Come / Go)

(1) She from Taiwan has returned come?
Mary no longer remembers how long she’s been in the Big City / came. Most people in it don’t, because time in there moves / goes differently.

(2) Teacher Lin at the classroom waits for you, hurry up and go.
She thinks, I probably just came to have my heart broken, and with the passing of time, eventually starts / comes to believe it.

(3) Mary returned to the dorm went to eat a banana.
Mary each afternoon returns to the tree goes and chews thoughtfully on blades of grass, not for nutrition, but inspiration.

(4) Teacher Lin already by car came.
Saves her money for buns from the good bakery / go, not the bad one.

(5) He just last week back to America went.
Seasons come and come and come and go.

(6) If you return to the school come, just give me a call.
(If you stay long enough / come, your successes will be well documented on TikTok!)

(7) She likes when arriving in my kitchen come to with me chat.
If both Mary and Tian Fang really do believe in destiny, maybe they could at least in a kitchen come together and chat?  

(8) Bring her some little melon when you go, okay?
This coming together going would be good for the story. (But nobody owes you anything, remember.)


Chapter 10. The Winter In My Hometown Is As Cold As Beijing

Shit! Why didn’t Tian Fang think to get her number?

Regarding the now collaborative project of finding his soulmate—the model from Special Edition Summer Issue Six Hundred and Fifty-Three of Contemporary Hair—Mary had said that she would call him, but that was just about the oldest trick in the Big City book, wasn’t it, and now it was just about Day One Hundred and One and he was starting to get the impression that she had no real intention of calling.

Another problem: winter was now upon them, and the city no longer resembled the city of opportunity that he had first come to inhabit.

The snow that lay over the Big City transformed it from a lively, vibrant place into an oppressively grey one. The white stuff covered up all the things about it that he had liked best: the food stalls, the bicycles, the girls in miniskirts. Now all the people of the Big City were bundled up in the most distasteful fashions: toques and scarves and heavy-soled boots; in plasticized black puffer coats that draped from the tops of their heads all the way to their ankles. The people of the Big City now resembled a factory of drying sausages, all bunched up and linked together at bus stops and around the entrances to escalators. Within a matter of weeks, the merely grey had transformed into a hopeless grey sludge. And the worst part about it all was that Tian Fang recognized this sludge instantly.

It reminded him of his hometown.

Tian Fang finished his shift at the salon and went around to the back of the building where there were a few rusty lawn chairs, a rusty picnic table, and a rusty old bucket all spread out in the parking lot. Tian Fang made himself a fire in the bucket and sat down in the nearest chair. It was negative twenty-something out, but the heater in his room had been broken for weeks. He pulled his puffer jacket tight around his chest and noisily unwrapped a couple packages of shrimp crackers he found in his pocket, not fully despairing his current situation, but not exactly happy about it either. A pigeon bobbed out of the bushes and cooed.

Suppose he quit his job at the salon: what then? A young man like him who was just setting out on his own for the first time had no idea what his talents were, never mind his passions (the whole point of coming to the Big City, after all, was to discover just this kind of thing). Not only that, but leaving the salon would mean he’d have to give up his bunk at the university and maybe even go back to living under a tree. The prospect of this wouldn’t have bothered him so much had it been the middle of summer, but—cue an ancient, toothless woman pushing sludge down the gutter, shuddering—it was not the middle of summer anymore.

The fire, while superficially symbolic of hope and strength, wasn’t even that warm.

Returning to his hometown had always been out of the question, as doing so would only concretize his failure and spiritual decline. Plus, he’d have to make up some elaborate story about his adventures in the Big City, and an even more elaborate story about his reasons for leaving it … Oh, the troubles he had!

At least, at present, life was still simple, Tian Fang thought, kicking the bucket gleefully and stubbing his toe.

The fire, while superficially symbolic of hope and strength, wasn’t even that warm.


Chapter 11. Did You Find My Passport

One morning when Mary was down on her hands and knees busy cleaning the vomit off the elevator floor as usual, an intoxicated woman came in and pushed the penthouse button. The woman was wearing a slinky sequined dress. Her bare legs smelled strongly of almond oil.

“I know I told you that I would be around next month for a shoot, but plans have changed, okay?” she yelled into her phone, the points of her shoes squeegeeing the marble tiles. “Yeah I realize it’s a breach of the quote unquote contract …

The elevator doors closed and the elevator began its ascent.

One, two, three, five, six, seven, eight, nine …

Mary stood up from the floor and began scrubbing the grimy elevator buttons. There was fresh gum stretched over the built-in speaker. She peeled it back with her thumb to let the piano music out.

“You really think you can threaten me with that made-up legal shit???” the model screamed some more.

Twenty-one, thirty-one, forty …

“Oh ho ho ho! I bet you would love to!!!”

“Ha ha ha ha!!!”

“Ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!”

Mary inspected the model in the mirrored elevator wall. She was frail-pretty, and not that tall. Really just a little bit prettier than average, a little bit taller. She did have good hair. Long, black, shiny. It flashed when she tossed her head back and forth under the fluorescent light.

“I wasn’t gonna go there but—oh, please, you have a nice life!!!!!”

The model hung up her call and threw her phone into the gaping opening in her purse. Mary followed the phone with her eyes and caught a glimpse of the purse’s insides—strangely, it looked to be full of rocks.

“Some people are so rude,” the model huffed, flicking the tips of her plasticized nails with her thumbs. “I decide to go to Sanya to detoxify my body and this is the way I get treated for doing what is a positive thing?”

Mary just shrugged. She did think it was a bit odd that this woman could get such good reception from the inside of an elevator … But then, what did she know? She was just a small town girl.

The model paused for a moment to eyeball her company.

“You know, girl, you have a really great haircut,” she finally said, making right angles with her hands to suggest something about ratios. “It’s not what you’d expect would look good on a person, but weirdly, it kind of suits you. Can I ask where you got it cut?”

Mary blushed. Hard. And then she lied. Made up some bad English name of a salon. Then told her the place was too far away to visit anyways. Not worth it at all, terribly inconvenient. Added that all the people who worked there were rude. She couldn’t remember much about it, anyways. It was that unmemorable.

The elevator pulled up to the penthouse floor and the mirrored doors opened with a little chime.

“Oh well then,” the model said. “Hey, you haven’t seen a passport around here, have you?”

Mary shook her head vigorously, nope nope no, having just committed to saying “sorry” less. By then though the model was already on her way, slinkying down the hall trailing an apathetic peace sign.


Chapter 12. What Is She Doing

Mary immediately took the elevator back down to the ground, ran all the way to the canal, and threw the passport into the dirty yellow water.


Chapter 12 1/2. What Is She Doing (Part Two)

But the passport was soon retrieved downstream by a fisherman, who took the passport home and handed it to his wife, who left it on the counter to later be found by their daughter, who put it in her schoolbag with every intention of illegally selling it, who got scared because the government and dropped it off in a hurry at the salon on her way to class at the university.

Lucky things do sometimes happen in the Big City (or what would be the point of living in the Big City?).


Chapter 13. I Got Them All Correct 

The verbs (finish), (understand), (see / hear), (open), (up), (to), (give), (become) and the adjectives (good), (agree), (wrong), (familiar), (early), (late), etc. can be placed after a verb to indicate the result of the action.

 

Affirmative form: Verb + Complement of Result

(1) I listened understood what the teacher said.
Tian Fang probably knew, in his heart of hearts, that the universe would always conspire / become against him. 

(2) I looked saw Mary, she was at the sport court doing Tai chi.
Mary didn’t believe / agree that that model was meant for him anyways.

(3) Today’s homework I did finish.
It’s entirely possible that the whole concept of finding / seeing one’s soulmate does not in fact make for a compelling narrative.

 

Negative form: (Do not have) + Verb + Complement of Result

(1) You didn’t listen hear what he said?
It wasn’t so much about loving / opening, as it was about openly / loving / caring.

(2) These clothes have not wash finished.
Symbolizing a version of the Big City as being not bad and wrong, but open and good and good and open.

(3) I have not looked seen your dictionary.
I don’t like much to read / early anyways. (We don’t have any more patience for your fancy fucking brioche.)


Chapter 14. Happy Birthday To You

Tian Fang was not at work the day the model from Contemporary Hair showed up, though he was the first to hear about it afterwards. She’d been very unhappy with her cut.

Having been cajoled into a haircut by an opportunistic stylist who tried to leverage the returned passport for her social media influence, she’d tried patiently to explain to him exactly what she wanted. “Kind of short, frizzy, asymmetrical,” she kept saying, calling up the recent memory of that stranger’s morning elevator hair. When he failed and failed and failed to deliver, however, she’d finally left in a fury, threatening a century of wigs and hats, her hair permed to the texture of dragon’s beard floss.

Tian Fang nearly wept when he heard about it the following day. On Day One Hundred and Forty-Nine in the Big City, he simply could not believe his bad luck. What a day he’d picked to take a day off! His birthday, no less! The only day off he’d had all month! What a day he’d picked to be born!

It was nothing at all like he’d been promised, and nothing had gone as planned, not a single thing since the day he arrived.

Tian Fang left the salon and took the subway downtown, where he spent a good part of that tragic day-after-his-birthday skulking tearfully around the entrances to random elevators, just hoping to catch sight of her. The Big City was a hoax, a money-suck, a dirty black hole. It was nothing at all like he’d been promised, and nothing had gone as planned, not a single thing since the day he arrived. Now he wished he’d never come.

A security guard took Tian Fang by the shoulders and escorted him away from the nearest elevator entrance, depositing him in a sad little patch of grass under a tree. There, Tian Fang began to cry.

He cried and cried. And cried and cried and cried. He cried for three minutes under the protection of a very large leaf, and when three minutes had passed, Mary lifted the large leaf away.

“What are you doing, crying like that in public?” she asked.

Tian Fang opened his eyes and there, to his bewilderment, was the most incredible haircut he had ever seen.


Chapter 15. Have You Heard the Piano Concerto Yellow River 

Mary sat down next to him on the grass and offered him half of her coconut bun, unfolding it gently from a piece of frayed fabric.

“I cut it myself, if you’re wondering,” she said, referring to her hair which she now fluffed around her ears. “I didn’t like what you’d done with it last time.”

“Too long at the back, and the bangs—well,” she continued. “It was a shitty haircut. You give really shitty haircuts.”

Mary shoved the half coconut bun into her mouth and slowly began to chew.

“But don’t worry. This city’s full of them. Good ones and bad ones. Good people and bad people. Most probably couldn’t win a game of Rock Scissors Cloth if they tried.”

Mary swallowed forcefully before continuing.

“Too hot in summer, too cold in winter …”

Her stomach emitted a chorus of unsettling sounds.

“… I’m thinking of leaving, by the way,” she said. “Have you ever heard the piano concerto Yellow River? I’m thinking of taking it. The river, I mean. And taking it inland this time, instead of outwards towards the sea. You can come if you want.”

But what’s wrong with the Big City … Tian Fang found himself thinking, as he rotated the cold half-bun in his hands three hundred and sixty degrees. This time of course, even Tian Fang had no reply.

They watched as a passing crane dropped a huge shit into the canal.

The shit floated on the polluted surface of the water for a while, forming a ring of scum around it, before eventually sinking.

 

 


Jacquelyn Zong-Li Ross is a writer based in Vancouver, the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and art criticism have appeared in BOMB, Mousse, Fence, C Magazine, Kijiji, and elsewhere, and her chapbooks include Mayonnaise and Drawings on Yellow Paper (with Katie Lyle). She publishes books by emerging artists and writers under the small press Blank Cheque, and is currently at work on a novel and a collection of short stories.

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