I probably stared at it for a good 20 seconds, shocked that anyone would call me in a country where I know exactly 3 adults, two of whom were presently sitting in my office.
Eventually, one of my colleagues stood up, grabbed the receiver, and gave it to me.
“Hello?” I said.
“This is Angie,” a voice said. “Calling from BEA.”
I started to twitch. I couldn’t help it. Just hearing those letters caused the corners of my mouth to dip, my ears to itch, and the lids of my eyes to do a maranga.
“Umghrr,” I said, as articulately as I could.
“We need you to come in.”
“I don’t have anymore left,” I said.
My heart wasn’t so much racing as beating itself over the head with a jackhammer wearing Adidas. “Blood. Hair. Sperm. Whatever it is you want from me.”
This time the pause was all on their side. Good, I thought. Let them know what it’s like to be violated.
“We need to register your Hong Kong ID card,” Angie said eventually. “We are still using your passport. This is not okay.”
“Oh,” I said. “I’m in a meeting right now. Can’t it wait?”
There was only a beat of silence before she said, carefully, as though explaining something to an eight-year-old who spent too much time sniffing Daddy’s turpentine: “We need to register your Hong Kong ID card. We are still using your passport. Tthis is not okay.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll be right down.” And I hung up.
When I turned back to my colleagues, one of them said, “Is everything all right?”
I nodded, picking up the quality enhancement protocol we’ve been working on.
The other one frowned, confused. “Do you need to go somewhere?”
I shook my head. “It can wait.”
But of course it couldn’t. I received three more calls from Angie while at work. We now had cell phones and somehow they get those numbers as well and start calling them, too. For the longest time I just ignored the calls, hoping the bank would give up. I didn’t frankly believe that it made one bit of difference whether they had my ID number or not. They already have my passport information; what difference could it make?
Then one Saturday night at 2 AM I rolled over to find a slight woman in a red suit standing beside my bed, holding an axe.
“We need to register your Hong Kong ID card,” Angie said. “We are still using your passport. This is not okay.”
I stared at her. Her face was expressionless, but even so I could see that her jaw was set. Her fingers, tipped by a lovely vermillion manicure, were just a slighter shade of pale around the handle of that Estwing Camp Axe.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll come down first thing in the morning.”
“Now,” said Angie.
“Okay,” I nodded. I was about to pull back the covers when I realized that all I was wearing were the Sponge Bob underpants Lucy got me for my birthday.
I tugged the sheets up and gazed at Angie. “Do you mind?”
She shifted the axe from her left hand to her right. “I don’t mind at all.”
I’d like to say the story ended there, but—well—you know how that goes.
After Christmas my parents came for a visit. Because they planned on spoiling the living Chris Kringle out of their grandchildren, they brought with them a number of traveler’s checks. For a long time we were too busy to make a run to the bank, but then one day we’re at the mall and the shop we’re looking for wasn’t open yet, so I pointed to a branch of the BEA and suggested we finally take care of things.
Approaching the front door, I peered through the glass, making sure neither Angie nor her axe were present. Seeing neither, we went in and approached a counter. Using my best Cantonese, I explained to the clerk that my mother would like to cash some traveler’s checks. When she replied that they have no more xylophones, and that if they did, they wouldn’t be for sale, I switched to English.
“My mother would like to cash some traveler’s checks.”
The clerk, a woman in her late twenties with glasses and—duh—dark hair, looked us both over very carefully.
“I have an account here,” I said. I wasn’t carrying my bankbook, of course, so I slid my—now carefully registered—Hong Kong ID card through the little slot.
She looked at it, then punched my name into the computer. After a moment she looked up, spotted my mother’s passport, and gestured for it. My mother slid it under the window, and the teller opened it to the photo page.
There was a pause during which my mother glanceed at me, pen poised over the first of her traveler’s checks, and asked if she should start signing.
I shook my head. The woman behind the counter takes one more look at the screen, then leans toward her microphone. Looking at my mother, she said, “Do you have an account here?”
My mother looked confused as, I’m sure, did I. “No.”
“We can only cash your checks if you have an account with us.”
I’m already shaking my head, fighting off that now-familiar twitch of the eyelids. “No,” I said. “No. That’s not right. These are traveler’s checks” I gestured at them. “They’re for traveling. You don’t use them when you’re at you’re at home, using your own bank.”
The teller—who, I realize, too late, was Angie’s older, eviler sister—just looked at me.
Grabbing a fistful of my mother’s checks and trying hard to keep the spittle from flying from the corners of my mouth, I said, “These are universally accepted. You can use them anywhere. Anywhere. That’s what they’re for.”
Angie the Elder/Eviler gave me a look that could freeze the privates of feral tomcat, then tossed out a phrase of Cantonese—something, if I’m not mistaken, about rice muffins and his holiness Pope Benedict’s poorly-dressed uncle—to a man hovering behind the line of tellers. He came over to her.
She explained the situation, undoubtedly, I’m sure, mentioning that was is the gweilo who’d put her sister back in therapy. He nodded thoughtfully two or three times, then glanced up at me.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “We do not accept checks from persons without an account.”
It was happening. I could feel it happening: the top of my brain pressing against the inside of my skull, pushed there by the raging hot flow of magma. I fought hard against the urge to go into detail suggesting a number of increasingly complicated anatomical experiments I thought they might try once they actually died and went to Hell.
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “That doesn’t make any sense. These are—“
But he cut me off with a curt nod and a shrug of his shoulders.
I sighed. My mother gathered up her traveler’s checks. We started to turn from the counter, and then the branch manager—for that’s who I assume he was—twisted the knife.
“By the way,” he said. “You need to go to your home branch and register your Hong Kong ID card. We are still using your passport. This is not okay.”
One more story, and then I’ll leave you to your happy life of functioning debit cards and that bizarre American concept of customer satisfaction.
When we started making plans for the recent Chinese New Year, we decided we’d be clever and book a flight out of Shenzhen, twenty-minutes away and just across the border, a good hour closer to our home in Tai Po than the Hong Kong airport on Lantau Island.
This was a good plan, except for the fact that the tickets we were after couldn’t be booked through the usual Travelocity/Zuji sites we usually use for things like this. Instead, we had to go to a private travel agent who’d buy our tickets, and whom we’d then reimburse.
As if this weren’t enough of a pain in the butt, the tickets couldn’t be paid for via credit card. No, we were told: you must either come directly to the travel agent, or make a deposit in one of our accounts. And then they gave us two different account numbers at two different banks.
Since the travel agent was a good 45 minutes away by train, we decided the latter approach would be best, and on a rainy Tuesday in late January I skipped my usual lunch of martinis and salmon roe and strolled through the door of my friendly campus BEA.
Angie was there, of course. It’d been a while since our midnight encounter, and while I assumed Angie remembered me with a degree of loathing on par with my own feelings for her, I didn’t let this deter me from stepping boldly up to her window, handing her the piece of paper on which I’d written the account numbers, and giving her a big fat, dirt-eating American grin.
“I’d like to deposit this money,” I said, handing her a wad of cash, “in either of these accounts.”
She took the money—of course—and spent a moment examining the piece of paper.
“Either one will do,” I said, still grinning, albeit less boldly. “Doesn’t matter which.”
She nodded absently and then, taking the piece of paper and my big pile of cash, wound her way back to the rear of the office and the desk of her older, equally absurdly-dressed colleague.
Twenty minutes later she woke me from my standing sleep and handed back the piece of paper.
“We cannot do this,” she said.
I smiled, a bit smugly, I will admit.
“You can’t,” I said.
She shook her head.
“You can’t send money to another bank?”
She looked at me for a moment, then gave the smallest of shrugs.
“You’re a bank,” I said, “that can’t get money to another bank.”
“Do you,” I asked, “do any actual banking here?”
Her eyebrows rose just slightly.
“Because, besides depositing my money, and occasionally letting me take some out, I’m not entirely sure your bank actually does anything.”
Her eyes never left mine. She seemed completely unabashed. If anything, the corners of her mouth seemed to have risen slightly.
I leaned forward, so that my mouth was just inches from the little slot. “Tell me,” I whispered. “What is it you people actually do here?”
I don’t know if it was then, or just a moment later, but very suddenly in the midst of this exchange, I realized that everyone in the bank—on both sides of the counter—was looking at me. And I don’t mean coincidentally, the causal glance my way. I mean very actively, their bodies turned in my direction, their eyes fixed on me as though with lasers.
Behind the counter, the older woman had risen from her desk. So, too, had the young man I’d seen back there pouring coffee and one or two others, all dressed in red, all with their arms hanging loosely at their sides. Their eyes were fixed on me. None of them seemed to blink. None betrayed any emotion.
I glanced around, taking it all in. Then my eyes turned back to Angie, who was still watching me steadily, the corners of her lips barely creasing upwards.
“What,” I said. “What is it?”
But no one replied.
It was getting warm in there. Loosening the collar of my shirt, I forced myself to keep my gaze on this idiot savant sans the savant part. Angie returned my look, unblinkingly.
“Can I at least have my money back?”
No answer, just those dark eyes, that expressionless face. The heat was increasing now. I could feel sweat forming on my brow. The air was actually thick, moist and cloying, as though someone somewhere was burning moss.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m out of here.”
And I turned, never mind the money. I hadn’t gone two steps, though, when I realized something was horribly wrong: where normally the view through the glass showed a peaceful square with a water fountain, meandering students, and dorms and mountains in the distant, now all I could see was darkness—pure night sky, thick and damp, no stars, no glowing windows, the only light intermittent flares erupting in a far distnace, as though from lost souls pleading for help.
I spun back to Angie. The counter was gone now, and the plastic glass, and all of the desks. She stood there, her red suit aglow, surrounded by the others, all of them staring at me.
“What?” I said. “What is it you do here?”
She didn’t reply, just raised one arm, pointing at me with a single, manicured nail (a pearly pink with in-laid rose designs, in case you’re wondering).
I took a step back. Something stirred in my chest, as though tugged by a string.
“What?” I asked again, absurdly. “What do you want?”
No reply. Just that pink fingernail (with a little glitter, I know realized), drawing, drawing, drawing something from my body, pulling away some ethereal part of me that was nevertheless the center of my being.
“No,” I said, taking another step back. I could hear a churning sound behind me now, as though the blackness were a flowing river, could smell the sulfur, knew where I was, knew who they were, knew what they wanted.
“No,” I said again. They hadn’t moved, but somehow they seemed closer. I could smell Angie’s breath, a dark, pungent odor, like really bad licorice, or one of those Halloween candies with the peanut butter that gets stuck in your dental work.
“No,” I said.
Below me, the room seemed to shift, as though the floor were tilting, as though time and space were beginning to swirl together. Angie still watched me, that quiet, almost loving smile on her face. The rest all pointed at me now, too.
“No,” I said again. It was hot in there. So very hot.
“No,” I repeated, and then said it one more time, just in case they were wondering: “No!”
Angie just smiled. The room began to spin. I turned, trying to keep myself steady, trying to keep from stumbling, but then everything twisted sideways and I was falling, falling, really really falling, like, a really long way.