Hi Panda

by J.C.

A panda sat in the plastic bench seat across from Damon. Pandas in popular imagination are playful, friendly, fun-loving cuddly rascals. Pandas on the subway are not. This panda was reading the newspaper. It sat slightly slouched, as if all the weight of the news were bearing down upon it.

The panda’s legs were open. It was a girl panda.

Stop after stop rolled past, as a muffled Chinese voice shouted out the stations through the loudspeaker. Damon wasn’t sure why the Panda was riding the subway. It was sitting there when he boarded. It – she – seemed very intent on the newspaper, not bothering to lift her head when a stop was announced. Well, everyone rode the subway to get somewhere, didn’t they?

Damon rode the subway on Sunday afternoons to clear his head, his hangover. It was the warmest place in Shanghai in the winter. So maybe the Panda also had a unique motive for riding. As Damon bestowed glances at the Panda in between rounds of flicking his cell phone screen so it was illuminated, staring at the screen until it dimmed, then flicking it down again, he realized that the panda was actually quite attractive. For a panda. Yes, all pandas in cartoons and as stuffed animals are attractive, but he didn’t mean like that. He meant, attractive. Like, he was staring at panda pudenda. And thinking thoughts.

What’s the protocol, here? Is this something the Chinese frown upon? I mean, well, yeah, the inter-species thing, probably, yeah, I’m pretty sure.
Phone flick, glance. Damn – their eyes met.

Okay, he thought, don’t look up for a bit. Think about something else. Dragons, maybe. But the fur on a panda must be nicer than a dragon’s scales. Pandas are vegetarians so they probably have a sweet scent, not… gamey like dragons. Fortune cookie? That’s just two female thighs pressed together in a crispy delicious snack. But they’re too sweet. And the crispiness would chafe. Pandas would be earthy without being loamy, sweet without being sugary…

He was still wearing last night’s party shirt, his skinny jeans. But he knew he looked good. Like a rockstar or an epic poet, on vacation from sobriety. He’d only been mildly foolish the night before; drunk but not insensate. How strong was a panda’s nose?

She’s maybe riding with another purpose, he thought, maybe prowling… Yeah. Come on and forage my way, sugar…

But no, I’m a guest in this country. I couldn’t. Not with one of the national symbols.

Flick, glance. Their eyes met again.

She’s checking me out! I was right!

He had a line all ready: Hi, Panda. Do you hate riding the subway as much as I do? Maybe we could share a taxi or something. Go get a coffee, or a drink.

Yes, he thought, maybe… But then: no. No, I couldn’t. Not a panda.

Lately when meeting women all Damon could think of during the initial approach, the first thrust of predatory banter, was the face she would make when he would break up with her. It killed his game. He saw the seeds of their sorrow in their faces and the floor tilted, his words blended into garble, he grew silent, signaled for another vodka. He hadn’t taken a woman home in three months.

And a panda would only be worse. Panda tears, a shuddering panda shoulder, the air-swipe of a paw: go away, I’m fine, I’m not crying. I just… please go. And then, two months later, his visa wouldn’t be renewed. He’d heard rumors about how things worked in China.

No, he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t fuck a panda.

Flick, flick, glance. She was reading the paper again.

But there must be a way. Some way that he could prevent the pain, the recriminations, the messy dribble of relations. Like, maybe if she was a dead panda… he certainly couldn’t kill it, but say, if he came upon one in the woods, or found one dead in his bathtub… Sure, no one would get hurt…

No. He was ashamed of himself. He often felt that way on Sunday mornings.

He imagined the panda could read his thoughts, and she would lunge at him with a female scream, or worse, cover her mouth with a paw while she giggled girlishly. But no. The subway slowed to another stop, and the panda rose, folding her newspaper. Damon wasn’t ready for her to leave. She stood at the double doors waiting for them to open. The doors opened and she passed through. As she placed one paw on the platform, she turned to look over her shoulder. Their eyes met again. Then she was gone.