If one more Asian were to come into Ally's life, just one more, she'd scream.
"HI-YA!" she'd screech out, maybe even with some posey kung fu stance, tiger style with fingers curled into claws, ready to pummel the unwanted Easterner back to wherever he came from. Not that she'd want to force him back to his own country or anything, she wasn't one of those people, but if he could just leave her alone, that'd suffice.
She had plenty of experience screaming. It's what she did when she wasn't waitressing at Shanghai Surprise, her day job, or more accurately, the job that paid the food and rent she shared with Mona Fong, her apartmentmate. Ally worked the dinners, so in the afternoons she screamed into the microphone at Lucky Stars Studios, screaming and grunting and making all sorts of other fighting noises she never knew were in her. In between her violent sound effects, she uttered laughably bad lines, like "When you killed my master, you should have killed me!" or "I shall avenge your death until I can die no more, father!"
Ally Carter was a dubbee. That's what the sleepy-eyed A/V techie, a Vietnamese guy named Tran, called her and the two other actors who provided English-translated dialogue for him to splice into the neverending supply of awful kung fu movies stacked in the closets of Lucky Star. Like Ally, Tran had thought this job would be a stepping stone to something better, but like Ally, there'd been nothing else. What started out as a six-month stint had turned into a two-year stay. And counting.
"Spielberg," he told her the last time they went outside to catch a smoke, the January wind cutting into them. They switched hands after each puff, keeping one in the pocket of their jeans at all times in a vain attempt to keep warm. "I was supposed to work with Spielberg. Not directly with him, but with one of his underlings. My prof, he had this whole thing set up for me." A dramatic drag, a dramatic exhale. "I'm such a fucking idiot."
Ally took a deep drag herself and said nothing, just nodded. Tran had already told her his sob story at least twice - he declined to go out west because of his girlfriend, who was now someone else's girlfriend - but obviously he hadn't remembered telling her. It's what pain did to you - made you forget, made you want to share your bad luck so you could dump it on to someone else. God only knew how many times she must've told her sorry-ass story to Meg at the Shanghai as they stood outside like this, gusts of arctic wind freezing their knees until they literally knocked together.
Tran - he was another one, another Asian. Mona, her apartmentmate, Taiwanese. Meg, her fellow waitress and friend at the restaurant, Korean. Raymond Chow and Raymond Liu, her two bosses with the same American first names, Hong Kong imports. The guy she bought coffee from every morning, whatever his name was, Indian. And Bill was Japanese.
Bill. She gave his back a good shove off the cliff of her mind, and for a second he was gone - but then he floated, little white wings pulling him up, landing him right in front of her.
Ally took another drag on her cigarette. She had to break it off with him. Today. After the reading. A hand on her shoulder.
"Hey," she told Bill, and she knew she wouldn't break it off today, and not tomorrow, maybe never. A product of a Japanese father and an Italian mother, God had manipulated the perfect genetic combination to make him the handsomest man she knew. Everything about Bill Nakamura was perfect on the outside - his brown eyes with specks that glimmered gold, his voice so baritone that it tickled, his feet, she loved his feet, toes like little carved totems - which made it all the more heartbreaking and mysterious that he should be so imperfect on the inside. He was so afraid of everything - afraid of people disliking him, afraid of misreading his lines, afraid that he wasn't good enough. His fear was what kept him from being a successful actor, a fact he himself recognized, yet that self-awareness failed to give him any strength. If anything, it just made him more afraid.
She didn't even think what they had could be categorized as a relationship. After a reading, they stole to his place, had sex, and ordered in. Afterwards, they talked about nothing of consequence, her head nestled in the crook of his arm, her finger outlining the loose cluster of seven fine hairs on the center of his chest. There was an eighth one that had just started to sprout, and Ally wondered if she would see it grow as long as the others.
They were never supposed to be together, but circumstances and powers beyond their control were at work, or at least that's what she told herself to alleviate the guilt. Last November, after their third day of reading, they were walking from the studio to the Starbucks on 17th when a black man in a tattered black leather coat stopped them in the middle of the street with one word and the glint of a long, hooked blade, the kind you use to filet a fish. A big fish, Ally thought, or a belly.
"Money," he said quickly, softly.
It was Sunday night, and because they were on a tight deadline, the session had taken them to half past midnight. Ally looked around and saw not a single person, not that they'd help, anyway.
Then she saw Bill's hand on her arm - long fingers, sharp knuckles, the hand of a fighter. Earlier that evening, before they read the lines between the drunk comic relief and the high and mighty princess, he had told her that he took karate for three years. Imagining Bill throwing one lightning punch after another, she suddenly saw the thief for what he really was: scared. You could see it all over him - his jumpy, bloodshot eyes, feet that never stopped fidgeting. He held the knife, but it was too deep inside his jacket, plenty of time for a quick kick to the knee that'd knock him down.
"Hurry up," Bill said, nudging her purse. With his other hand, he gave the man the cash contents of his wallet.
There wasn't much in her handbag, almost all of it in singles, her tips from the night before. The guy snatched it and took off without saying another word, his footsteps growing faint as they watched him disappear into the darkness.
"Let's go," Bill said, taking her hand and sprinting to the end of the street, where there was more light and people. At the corner, they slowed down and Bill leaned back against the neon-trimmed window of a take-out Chinese shop, sun-faded photographs of their popular entrees behind his wobbly legs.
"Oh," he said in between bursts of tears and hitches, looking at her with such candid, childlike terror, "oh ... we ... could've ... died."
Ally did the only thing she could do, which was to take him in her arms like a mother, shield him away from the evils of the world. Weeks later he'd ask about the stain on the left shoulder of her suede coat, and she'd tell him it had always been there.
That night they made love for the first time. "I've heard of this," Bill told her in bed, the studio apartment smelling of sex and pizza. Bill had half a pie left over from the night before, so they reheated it and ate it all up right down to the crust, surprised at their late-night hunger. "People, when faced with life-threatening situations, get sexually charged, like us." He turned, his face so close, less than an inch away. "Is this what happened?"
Ally kissed his eyebrows, then his nose, then his mouth. She'd fantasized this situation since the first day, naked in bed with Bill, and in that fantasy she knew pity existed, but never in a million years would she have believed it would've originated from her. "Is your life threatened now?" she asked.
"No, not particularly."
"Do you want to fuck me again?"
That smile. How was it possible that a mere human gesture could so thoroughly satisfy her? She knew it was shallow to love something so physical, but that smile would wipe out a rainstorm, make the heavy clouds burn up in an instant to reveal an everlasting sun. As she felt him slide inside her again, she thought she'd do anything to see that living work of art blossom across his face. She didn't care if he was engaged to be married in the fall. She wouldn't have cared if he'd murdered a flock of nuns and ate their holy hearts.
But that was only when he was with her. Afterwards, when Ally returned from another grueling evening of waitressing and fell on her bed, she played a sleep-depriving game of tag with her conscience, one where she was always "it." She'd find a reason to blame Bill for everything, but then would think of something else to put the onus back on her. She'd never played the role of the other woman, and it was exhausting.
Now, as he stood in front of her, she wanted to run the other way. She wanted to tear his clothes off. She wanted to tell him it was over. She wanted to kiss him. She wished he were dead.
"Come on," she said, flicking away her cigarette, the butt spinning end over end until it fizzed out in a rainbow-swirled puddle. She opened the door for him and tried not to imagine his tight ass underneath those jeans as they climbed the stairs, and failed.
At the top of the stairs, Bill held the door to Lucky Star Studios open for her. When he saw that she wasn't going in, he smirked - not as potent as his smile, but luscious in its own right - and asked, "Are we waiting for an invitation?"
Tran walked past and nodded at her, and sitting in the back corner was Raymond Chow, the big screen TV tattooing his entire body, a pair of chrome chopsticks deep into a white carton of Chinese food. He was having fried shrimp and egg drop soup again, the fatty, carnival smell ubiquitous. The light in the glassed-in box where they read was off, but soon it would be on and she and Bill would be in it, reading their stupid lines and yelling their stupid yells into their microphones.
She had to get away from Asians. Like everything else horrible in her life, it all started out so innocuously: After graduating from NYU, she was looking to share an apartment, and there was Mona Fong's tiny pink ad pinned on a bulletin board, asking for a single female to live with her in Queens. Ally initially had reservations about living with someone of a different culture, but her fears were allayed when she met Mona and saw how American she was, born and raised in Jersey like herself. When the startup where Ally had been secretary filed for bankruptcy, Mona got her the job at Shanghai Surprise through her father, who was friends with the owner, Raymond Liu. And at the restaurant, Ally met Meg, who'd served Raymond Chow so many times that they were on a first-name basis. She told Ally about the gig at Lucky Star Studios, and now here she was, looking back at her Asian-overrun life, hopeless.
But it wasn't hopeless, she told herself. She would take control, take back her life. She'd gone with the flow long enough; it was time she swam against the Yellow Sea.
"Hi hi," Raymond said, jumping up from the sofa and scurrying over to her. That was the way he greeted everyone, which seemed cute in the beginning but now just got on her nerves. He was a little man whose completely bald head always glistened as if coated with Vaseline, and his round belly poked out enough to make him look seven months pregnant. Behind his back they called him Chip-Monk, because while he had the buck teeth of the rodent, he possessed the tranquil disposition of a devout cleric. Bill impersonated him with deadly accuracy, scrunching his shoulders down and baring his front teeth in a scowl as he spoke in broken English, and while Ally laughed just as hard as Tran had, shame gnawed at her afterwards. Raymond was such a gentle, sweet man that no one should make fun of him, but of course in reality people like him were the ones attacked the most.
"Hi Ray," Ally said. She knew he liked her, almost in a reverent sort of way, and Ally didn't know why. Certainly her performance was not the reason - in fact, considering the number of times she'd flub her lines per session (at least three, each time generating some form of under-the-breath expletive from Tran), she was lucky he hadn't fired her. It didn't hurt that she was a blonde white girl, probably the only one he had any regular contact with. Ray had never come onto her, just peeked at her surreptitiously, the way shy men do. The hardest part about leaving would be telling Ray, but she'd do it. She'd be strong. This was her last movie. She had nothing lined up, her future no different than it was two years ago. But that didn't matter. What mattered was getting the hell away.
"How are you?" he asked.
"Hanging in," she said with a playful punch on his shoulder. He blushed fiercely and almost dropped what he was about to hand her.
It was a VHS cassette sleeve, and on the cover were photographs of the two characters she'd come to loath, Sun Chui and Yan Cheh, wearing their usual ancient Chinese garb. Sun, voiced by Bill, was a doctor who just also happened to be a kung fu expert, and when he wasn't saving some poor sick village with his acupuncture needles and exotic herbs, he was ridding the countryside of corrupt officials and their hoodlum posse. His braided hair snaked down to the middle of his back, and before a fight he twined it ceremoniously around his neck, to keep it out of the way from the acrobatic combat that eventually ended up with the bad guy impaled on some sharp object before the credits rolled.
Ally's job was being Yan, Sun's orphaned nephew who was always getting into some kind of idiotic trouble and needing to be rescued. At first it was strange to play the part of a young male, but then Ally recalled that animated shows on television featuring boys were often voiced by women, like Bart Simpson or Bobby Hill. She deepened her voice slightly and spoke with a British accent, which was required of all the actors except Bill, who had to fake a Chinese-American accent. It made no sense, but that was apparently the expected style of dubbed kung fu movies, at least here at Lucky Star Studios.
Inside the recording box, Ally cleared her throat and downed a swig of water. She looked at the script, her lines highlighted in yellow. Bill looked at his with a tired grimace on his beautiful face. His jaw was clenched as he looked up and met Ally's eyes, and she realized that Bill hated this job more than she did, if that was possible. The fake accent bothered him more than anything else, made him wonder why he took all those voice lessons from the Stella Adler School in the first place when all he had to do was speak like his father.
"Sorry I'm late," Gordon Chan said, sipping on a styrofoam cup of coffee. For a man who purported to be sorry, he never acted like it. He unzipped his brown leather jacket, hung it on the hook behind the door, peeled off his matching gloves, unfurled the scarf around his neck, folded it into an exact square, placed it into the pocket of his jacket, took another long sip of the coffee, and excused himself for the bathroom.
"God, I hate that guy," Bill said.
Ally despised him, too, but he was one of the most talented man she'd worked with. He did every other voice in the movie with such distinctly different styles that you'd never think for a second that it could all be the same person. He even did women perfectly.
Gordon closed the door behind him, and the box was suddenly completely silent. He was a fat, hairy, ugly man, destined to a life of voiceovers, dubs, and radio. He picked up his script and flipped to the right page.
"Ah," he said, looking over to Ally. Even from three feet away, she could see the black hairs prickling out of one nostril, like the legs of an insect. Didn't he ever look in the mirror? "Looks like it's you and me, girlfriend. I remember now, you didn't want to do this part last night."
"We both didn't want to do it."
"Whatever," Gordon snorted. "You ready?"
"I've been ready," Ally said.
"Hut!" Gordon said, going right into it.
"Hi!" Ally said.
There were three more pages of this until Gordon would say, "You think you're fast, but I'm faster," to which Ally would reply, "Ha! We'll see." And then two more pages of pure grunting torture. After her first dub, she'd asked Tran why they just didn't use the original fighting sounds from the movie.
"Raymond wants continuity," Tran told her. When he saw her confusion, he shrugged. "Hey, I just do as I'm told, you know? He says he wants the speaker and the fighting sounds to sound the same."
"I can't imagine anyone would notice the difference."
"Girlfriend," he said, imitating Gordon, "you're preaching to the choir."
Ally also couldn't imagine anyone even watching these things. Since they were at least thirty years old, they didn't feature a single cool effect, no Keanu Reeves dodging bullets in ultra slo-mo, no Chow-Yun Fat gliding through the sky and swordfighting while balanced on a single tree branch. As she continued to make guttural animal noises inside this glassed hellhole, she took solace in the fact that this was the last time she'd have to do this, the last time, the last time, the last time.
When Ally returned to the apartment, she was surprised to find Mona in the kitchen.
"What are you doing here?" Ally asked, not meaning to sound so accusatory. She felt even worse when she saw how pale Mona looked.
"I feel like shit," she croaked, struggling to open a can of chicken soup. It was the new kind of can that opened up like cat food, where a broken fingernail was pretty much a guarantee.
Ally sat her down at the dining table and took over. She pried the lid open with the handle of a fork, dumped the contents of the can into a covered bowl and stuck it in the microwave, setting the timer to three minutes and watching the bowl spin slowly counterclockwise through the meshed window. On the subway ride back from the studio, Ally had been looking forward to vegetating in front of the television until her shift at the restaurant, but now she'd have to not only talk to Mona but take care of her, too. Her friend wasn't sick often, but she was one of those people who wholeheartedly immersed themselves in their sickness, almost enjoying it in some masochistic way.
Ally brought her the soup and sat down next to her.
"Thanks," Mona said, wading through the squiggly white noodles and spooning up just the broth. "God, I feel awful. Every single muscle in my body feels bruised. Even my tongue feels tired. I just can't seem to get rid of this cold."
"Have you seen a doctor?"
"I should, don't you think?"
Ally nodded, but her mind was elsewhere, wondering if Mona's new apartmentmate would bring her a hot bowl of soup the next time she felt under the weather. Every time Ally wanted to tell Mona about her plans, of moving out of here and into Brooklyn, something always got in the way. It still wasn't too late, the lease expiring in three months, enough time to find a replacement or for Mona to find another apartment. Three simple words, she'd told herself so many times she wondered if it was ever going to happen, all she had to say were three words: "I'm moving out." But it was so hard. Would Mona be angry? Would she cry? What if she cried? Ally didn't know how to handle that. The remaining time in the apartment would be a nightmare, their relationship destroyed. She definitely couldn't tell her that she signed the contract for the other place last week, a house to be shared with two other girls, white girls, aspiring actresses like herself. She'd met them at an audition for an investment bank commercial, where the company was looking to hire an airheaded-looking but smart-sounding woman. None of them had landed the job, but Ally hit it off with one of the girls, Jolene, who invited her to take a look at their place. It wasn't as roomy as her apartment now, but it was Asian-free.
Jesus, did she actually just think that? Asian-free? What was next, shaving her head and getting a swastika tattoed on her bicep?
No, she had to do this. She had to.
"Mona," Ally said. She'd just say it right now, never mind that her friend was in the middle of a sneezing fit. The only way to get it out was to just get it out, no more excuses.
"Wait a minute," Mona said, picking up the nearest paper product, a stack of baby blue napkins on the table. She blew her nose once, twice, the second time a little too hard. Blood soaked through the thin tissue, turning it crimson. "Shit ... shit, I'm bleeding. Ugh."
Ally jumped out of her chair and ran to the bathroom. She opened up the medicine cabinet and found what she was looking for, a bag of cotton balls, and ran back to give Mona a handful.
She shoved one into her left nostril, waited, pulled out the blood-infused stump, and replaced it with a clean one. It was her routine every time she got a nosebleed. Mona had many routines, like the way she'd wash the dishes first, then the bowls, then the utensils, always in that order. When she wanted to surf through the television channels, she flipped to the last station, number 97, and worked her way down. The end of April would make it three full years they'd lived together, and it suddenly occurred to Ally that she'd miss her. She hoped they could stay friends.
"I'm gonna lie down on the couch," Mona said. "Were you going to tell me something?"
"No," Ally said. "I should get ready for work."
Mona lay down on the sofa, elevating her head by doubling up on the throw pillows. "It's only, what, like three o'clock?"
"I told Raymond I'd come in earlier," Ally said, which wasn't true. She could visit the Met, walk around and stare at the Impressionists section until her shift actually started. Or she really could go in earlier, make her lie into a half-truth and earn some extra cash.
"All right," Mona said. "I think I'll nap for a while."
In the shower, Ally beat herself up for failing yet again to tell Mona, but not for long. She'd done it too many times for it to be effective. She smelled Bill's cologne everywhere on her body, and that made her think about him and that hideous situation. When she'd asked him, he reluctantly showed her the photograph of the girl he was going to marry, as if she might use it against him at some future point. She could see it like a movie, playing the role of the jealous "other" woman, finding his fiancée and telling her that she loved him and that they'd done it forty-four times. She actually hadn't kept track, but obsessed people usually did that kind of stuff. Her name was as plain as her face, Mary. She was a Japanese girl he'd known since forever.
"Do you love her?" she asked him. It wasn't the question she'd wanted to ask - do you love her when you're fucking me? - but it was close enough.
From the way he'd looked at her, both questions would have resulted in the same answer. He didn't love her, but his family did. It didn't hurt that she was stinking rich. Ally wondered how many more affairs there would be in his life. She saw herself at the beginning of a vast line of women, shuffling forward one step at a time. It was her turn now, but soon she'd step through and close the door. When she quit Lucky Star, she'd quit him, too, and it would be easy. She wouldn't have to see him anymore. She only wanted him when he was within eyesight.
She scrubbed Bill and everything else off with a generous pink dollop of the shower gel and her oversized loofah sponge. She dried off with a fresh towel, taking her time, the terry cloth massaging her skin like tiny little fingers, one of the few unadulterated enjoyments left in her life. She blow-dried her hair, the steady gust of heat making her sweat. In her bedroom she put on her face, and as she buttoned down her white shirt and slipped her black skirt over her black tights, the work uniform she must've put on a thousand times, she made a promise to herself. She'd tell Mona the second she got out to the living room. She'd be asleep, but Ally would wake her. She'd shake her and wake her and get her life back on track.
Mona was indeed asleep, but Ally wasn't prepared to see how young and little she looked with the blanket pulled up to her neck. She looked comically cute, one nostril stuffed with cotton, her mouth slightly ajar as she snored lightly.
She'd tell her when she got home tonight. She would.
She had to believe it. If she didn't believe in her own lies, who would?
The only part of Shanghai Surprise Ally would miss was Meg. They promised to do lunch at least once a week, though Ally knew it wouldn't be the same. Instead of sharing a laugh like last night, watching the huge guy at the round table eating like a starved lion, spraying bits of his food everywhere as he devoured one dish after another, they'd each have their own individual stories to tell. She would complain about Raymond Liu, and Ally would bitch about her new boss, whomever he or she turned out to be. Ally got the office admin job at the ad firm two days ago, and the only person she'd met was the human resources rep.
Unless there was some other kind of a bond, post-work relationships never lasted. She thought back to Carol, her cubemate at the startup before it folded. They were the best of friends, eating lunch together almost every day, and yet when she and Ally tried to get together afterwards, they ran out of things to say within ten minutes, the rest of the dinner alternating between stillborn conversations and uncomfortable silences.
If the same happened to her and Meg, it wouldn't be the end of the world, but it just seemed a shame that once you got to know someone, you could stop knowing them for no real good reason. Ally wondered how Carol was doing, if she thought about her at all. Probably as much as she did, which was almost never.
Ally walked past the front entrance of the restaurant and stepped into the passageway between Shanghai and its neighbor, a karaoke bar. As she walked by, she listened to a group of girls singing the Eurythmics song "Sweet Dreams" with gusto, not too bad for amateurs. Through one of the side windows she could see them, half dozen of them clustered around the two mikes on the spotlighted stage, looking young and looking drunk. It wasn't even four o'clock yet, so they were probably in college, partying it up before the spring semester resumed next week. She should've had more fun when she was in school.
"When your regrets outnumber your hopes," her father had told Ally on her last birthday, "you know you're getting old." It was a rotten thing to say, but he was really referring to his life more than hers - two failed marriages, a business that barely got him by, his current relationship heading for the toilet - and when he realized it, he added quickly, "but honey, you won't have to worry about that for a long, long time." He was wrong. She was a year away from turning thirty, and Ally didn't see how her life would get any better. She tried harder than most people she knew, auditioning for every role she could find, but all of them had led to nothing. Her greatest achievements so far have been two non-speaking parts, a bartender in Sex and the City and a prostitute in Law and Order. There were so many people younger than her succeeding wildly, and every time she saw one of them on the cover of a magazine or on a billboard, she felt a bitterness rage inside her, the anger translating itself into a physical, painful heartburn. That should be her being interviewed about her latest blockbuster movie, not this sweet-faced twenty-one year old who just happened to be at the right place at the right time. Sometimes the world felt like an elaborate setup, existing just to provide her with an unending supply of disappointments.
At the loading dock of the Shanghai, she found Meg lighting up.
"Margaret Min-Joo Lee!" Ally said, doing her best impression of a schoolteacher.
"Allison Douglas Carter!" Meg said. She offered her a cigarette and Ally took it, noting smoking as another commonality between them. If the lunch thing didn't go well, they could meet up for a cup of coffee and a cigarette.
They each sat on a milk crate and smoked, taking in the nice day, the blue sky, the crisp breeze.
"I can't believe I won't see you tomorrow at this place," Meg said.
"Lunch every Thursday, right?"
"Yeah," Meg said, "yeah."
Ally didn't know what to say to that, so she said nothing, just puffed. One of the little Chinese dishwashers joined them midway, dragging over another crate and sitting next to Meg. Like the others, he hardly spoke any English, but Ally enjoyed the idea that they could all share in the pleasure of something universal, even if it was something as bad as tobacco. She'd have to quit sooner or later. Sooner, looking at this guy, who has probably smoked all his life, his face like mistreated leather, wrinkles etched so deep they looked like scars.
Meg stood up and ground her cigarette butt with her heel. "You know who's gonna be in the restaurant fifteen minutes from now?"
"Hmmmm ... let me guess - Madonna and Sean Penn?" It was an old joke between them. On the first day they worked together, they found out that they'd seen the movie "Shanghai Surprise" at the same theater. The idea that they might have even sat next to each another fifteen years ago and were now here waitressing at the same restaurant seemed utterly cool and cosmic.
"No, not Spicoli and the Material Girl," Meg said. They walked through the bright, bustling kitchen, every step revealing a different rich scent: battered shrimp, fried duck, sesame chicken. The girls exited through the double swinging doors, their eyes forced to adjust quickly to the darkness. It was the dead time between lunch and dinner, so there was no one in the main dining area.
They stopped in front of the guestbook, and Meg pointed to the four o'clock slot. There was one Chinese letter next to the time and a "3" next to it. "I know you can't read Chinese, and I can't, either, but I know this one because that's the same as my last name."
"Lee," Ally said. "So ... ?"
"I overheard Raymond talking to his wife. That Lee is Ang Lee."
"Why would Ang Lee be coming to this place?"
"Who knows? Maybe Raymond knows a friend of his, or something. Who cares?" Meg looked at her funny. "This is Ang Lee we're talking about. He's made movies, many movies, successful movies, Oscar movies. Right?"
Ally nodded. "But even if I were to serve him ... "
"Oh, you'll be serving him."
She seemed sure about that, which meant that there'd be a tiff between her and Raymond. Meg was the best waitress, so she got to wait on the best tables, and no doubt Raymond would want his number one to service a celebrity.
Meg led her to the corner table near the fireplace, the primo spot of the restaurant. They set up three place settings, the chopsticks on the left and the wide ceramic soup spoon on the right, the burgundy napkin folded into a pyramid and placed on top of the golden serving plate. A triad of tea cups, two kinds of soy sauce, a fresh single rose plunked into the mouth of the vase.
What could she do? Tap dance on their table? Break out in song as she brought out the pork fried rice? What she didn't want to say was tell him she admired his work, because she didn't. She thought The Ice Storm was boring and actually fell asleep while watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Besides, it just seemed so lame, to tell him those ridiculous words: "I'm such a big fan of your work." How was that going to get her any closer to her goal of becoming an actress?
And what about her no-Asian rule? Wouldn't getting in contact with Ang Lee break that covenant?
That was the stupidest thing she'd thought up yet. It was just fear talking, and she realized that if she didn't take any action here, she would be no less of a wuss than Bill. After all, she had nothing to lose. The worst that could happen was getting fired, and what of it? She was quitting anyway.
"You here early," Raymond Liu said. He shared the same nationality and first name as Raymond Chow at Lucky Star, but this Raymond was in every way the opposite. He was tall, thin, and genuinely seemed to enjoy screaming at his help. He never tore into Ally or Meg like he had with some Chinese waitresses and busboys, but the fact that he was capable of dishing out such cruelty made her dislike him. Ally's plan was to just walk out tonight and never come back, leave him a short phone message overnight that she'd found another job.
"I had some time to kill. Is that okay?"
Raymond nodded curtly. "You clean silverware," he said, pointing her to the station in front of the kitchen, as if she didn't know where they were after working here for over a year. She did as she was told and left him and Meg to talk, and stood polishing the seldom-used forks and knives until she came over. Meg briefed Ally on Ang's menu, which had already been faxed over by his personal assistant.
"Raymond's gonna throw a fit," Ally said.
"Fuck him. So," Meg said, "whaddya gonna do?"
"I know what I don't want to do, tell him how much I love his work."
"Could you, like, act out a scene or something?"
She was being serious. Meg was a sweetheart, but she wasn't the brightest girl Ally knew. "I don't think so."
"You should do something."
"You'll think of it," she said, and beamed her a winning smile. "Just go for it."
He looked like he did in the few photographs and interviews she'd seen, a lithe, gentle-faced man with warm, froggy eyes, wearing a large winter jacket with a furry hood. He was accompanied by two older Asian men, and as soon as Mrs. Liu took their coats and sat them down, Ally approached the table with a silver pot of hot tea. Behind her, she heard Raymond and Meg argue quietly.
She greeted them and took down the orders of the other men, and something strange was happening with time because in a blink she'd brought out the soups and the appetizer and was now about to deliver three large dinner plates balanced precariously on her oval tray.
"How's it going?" Meg asked.
"Just do it," she said, the Nike slogan hardly giving her the boost she needed.
Ang's plate looked and smelled wonderful, a beef dish with basil and cilantro. Looking at his meal helped her remember one movie of his she did absolutely love, an English-subtitled film called Eat Drink Man Woman, a story about a chef and his three daughters. The best part of the movie was the cooking and the eating, and it was touching, too, the mending of a broken father-daughter relationship. She and Mona had watched that together at the apartment, and they both ended up weeping as the movie came to a close.
Her final chance came with the bill, which she wrote out and slipped inside a long black wallet with a lip for the credit card.
"Hope you enjoyed it," she said.
"It was wonderful," Ang said, sliding his card into the slot.
It was a platinum American Express card, ANG LEE, member since 1981. She ran it through the machine and hated herself for waiting until the last possible moment to tell him something, anything. She had to say something. Years from now, she'd tell an interviewer about this evening, how it led to her big break, the beginning of her real life.
She brought the printout to the table.
"Thank you," she said. "And Mr. Lee," she added, "I just wanted to say how much I admire your work."
His smile was gracious and weary. How many times had he heard that one? Probably a million.
"Thank you," he said.
"I'm an actress, too," she continued, her voice faltering, but she willed her lungs to propel air through her vocal cords, "and I hope I get to work with somebody as accomplished as yourself in the future."
The endpoints of his smile drooped slightly, a variant he no doubt reserved for desperate thespians, and she was lifted with a glimmer of hope. Ally was getting through to him, conveying her years of frustration in that one powerful sentence. It would be so easy for him to tell her to stop by the studio tomorrow morning, that he was currently auditioning for a couple of small roles for his upcoming picture. Or anything at all - here's my card, give my girl a call. I know someone who knows someone.
"I wish you the best," he said.
At least she tried. That's what she told herself on her walk back to Lucky Star Studios that night, but it didn't make her feel any better. This was yet another failure in a growing list of failures, and at some point in the future, she'd have to give it all up, face the fact that her dream of being an actress was just that, a dream.
Add Ang Lee to her catalog of Asians who've screwed her over. She hated him, hated them all, their slitty eyes, their dirty yellow skin, their greasy black hair. They were cheap, too, their tips at Shanghai Surprise always smaller than everyone else's.
I wish you the best. I wish you get run over by a bus, Ang.
"Hey," Tran said when she walked in, "you're here really late."
"He's out, picking up a friend of his from the airport. Why're you here?"
"None of your goddamn business," Ally said.
Ally fell into Raymond's couch, the cassette sleeve of her current movie on the side table. The idea of finishing the dub made her want to get drunk. Raymond would find somebody else in a heartbeat, another stupid girl hoping to make it in this rotten business.
"I just had a tough night."
Tran came over and sat next to her. "It's all right. I've had a shitty evening, too. I fucked up the sync for the last track somehow, so I basically have to start over. In fact, I better get back to it if I want to catch some sleep."
"Do you know when he's coming back?"
"I'd say about now." Tran said, pointing to the door.
"Hi hi!" Raymond said, taking off his jacket. Accompanying him was a small old woman. "You here late, why?"
"Just wanted to talk to you," she said.
"Okey-dokey," he said. "But first, I have surprise!" He pointed two index fingers at the woman he brought and said, "Ta-da!"
"Hello," the old lady said. She was shorter than Raymond and older, probably in her sixties, but there was something familiar about her. When she saw that Ally didn't recognize her, she leaped up and performed a fancy double kick maneuver in midair, then came down with her arms crossed and her fingertips bunched together in each hand. It was the snake style, and now Ally had no doubt as to who this was.
"Yan Cheh?" Ally said.
"Yes! My name Yiyi," she said, her smile unmistakable, the same one they showed at the end of each movie. She'd aged thirty years, but her eyes were identical, tiny black stones that sparkled like stars.
"But she's a woman," Ally said to Raymond, who nodded and explained that Yiyi dressed up as a man to play a young boy. "You girl, play boy, but boy is really girl. What you say, ironic?"
"Ironic," Ally repeated.
Yiyi took her hands and spoke to her in Chinese while Raymond translated. "Thank you. You give me ... say? Voice. You give me voice."
Ally didn't know what to say. It was a lovely thing, but not what she wanted to hear right now. "Thank you," she told her, then asked Raymond, "Can I talk to you in private?"
"Sure sure," he said. He sat Yiyi down on the couch and led Ally into his office, which was nothing more than one corner of the room sectioned off by a pair of rice-paper screens. He took the seat behind the desk and motioned Ally to take the chair in front, but she wanted to stand.
"I'm quitting," Ally said, surprised at her lack of hesitation. In truth, she actually found herself enjoying this moment. For once she was on the giving side of a rejection, and she felt sharp and strong.
Raymond blinked, then shook his head, as if he couldn't quite comprehend the situation. "Quit? Now?"
"Yes," she said. "I'm moving on."
"Not finish Five Masters from Beijing?"
He was trying to guilt her into staying, but Ally stood her ground, choosing instead to believe that she'd wasted the last two years of her life in this place, time she could never recover. If anybody around here should be feeling guilty, it should be Raymond, not her.
"I won't finish the movie."
Raymond nodded, then got up from his chair. He smiled and opened his arms wide, and it took Ally a second to realize that he was waiting for a hug. She bent down to give him one, his pot belly squeezing against her own. It was like squeezing a warm pillow, a comforting feeling.
"Sooner or later I know you go," he spoke softly into her ear. "I lucky, very lucky, have you all this time."
"No," Ally said.
"You beautiful, you talented, you go make big movies, okay?" He broke the embrace and looked at her point-blank. "Okay?"
"Okay," she said, her strength drained out of her. She should've known that he would say nothing but the kindest things, make her feel like shit for running out on him. As she followed Raymond out of his office, she was suddenly filled with terror. Everything was changing - new job, new apartment, new roommates, her life becoming someone else's.
This was what she wanted, wasn't it?
Yiyi was glued to the big screen TV, watching the final minutes of the last movie Ally and Bill had dubbed. "Goodbye," Ally said, but she wasn't sure Yiyi heard her. She must've, though, because at the door, Yiyi yelled something and waved.
"What did she say?" she asked Raymond.
"'Goodbye,'" he said, "'goodbye, American sister.' Goodbye, Ally."
After the door closed, she stood in the half-lit darkness of the corridor and listened to the chop-socky screams from the television leaking through the thin walls. She waited until the exit music swelled to a finale, until there was nothing, just silence.