The nice thing about having drunks for friends is that they have short memories. Whatever you did last night, they probably don’t remember, and even if they did, who are they to judge? So what if you pulled up your dress, started to cry, vomited into a fountain in Fuxing Park? At least you didn’t get into a fistfight, steal a rickshaw, and leave your passport in a taxi. When I woke up early on Sunday morning, I suddenly wanted to call Chloe, just to thank her for being my friend, but then I realized I’d left my cell phone in the fountain.
I thought about my poor pink Motorola resting on the slimy tiles at the bottom of the fountain, sending up helpless little gurgling bleeps. I would have a message. It would be Chloe, up again impossibly early, telling everyone, “Brunch at EWD? Be there in an hour.” And, impossibly, everyone would show up, friends who were last together only six hours before, still nauseous and unsteady and now a little shamefaced, because Chloe asked us to.
Chloe was more than just pretty, but she was also pretty. She had a heart-shaped face with a sharp, dimpled chin; dark, heavy hair; and a pale swath of freckles across her nose. She had crisp green eyes, the wet, fresh color of celery. She was short, but seemed taller, because she had this presence.
She had some imperfections, too, of course. Thick ankles, and a certain sallow coarseness to her skin that will only get worse with age, and a fan of wrinkles around her eyes, where her powder settled by happy hour. But I’m just being jealous. Really, she was beautiful. She was too pretty to live in China. I mean, she was the queen of Shanghai, but she could have been the queen of any other place instead.
She had lived here forever, and it was hard to imagine her apart from the place. She spoke good Chinese, but without tones, and in the same tripping cadence she used when speaking English. She had been here long enough to try every vanity project – a failed nightclub, a failed coffee bar, a failed magazine, a failed development scheme, but somehow, nothing could mark her as a failure. She was a short-term, serial success.
Sometimes I wanted to ask, what is your plan? When does your real life begin? But I felt guilty for even thinking such a thing. It made me feel like an unbeliever.
When I woke up again it was 11am and I could hear the ayi’s key scraping the lock. I tucked the sheets around my exposed parts and held my breath. I was caught between pretending to be asleep and pretending to be awake. If I lay in bed all morning, she would call the doctor just to spite me. Also, she wouldn’t be able to make my bed.
I sprung up just as she was opening the door, and slammed mine before she could see me naked. I actually crawled into the closet to change, then burst out with the the appearance of energy and purpose and headed for the door. I dreaded having the ayi give me another knowing look, like she knew I had a su zui, a hangover. A word I had learned just the night before. I wondered if I was missing brunch.
By now all my friends would be assembled, the same people I saw last night. A dozen friends had come and gone again, but this group of seven of us just kept on staying.
The first to arrive would be Mark, who had already signed a second three-year contract with Microsoft, and his pretty wife Laura, who wrote breathy raves for half a dozen in-flight magazines and travel guides, the whole “China is a land of contrasts” thing. They had a car and a driver and a lot of grown-up things they’d brought over from the States, like bakeware and a Kitchenaid mixer and sheets from the Pottery Barn.
Dan would show up next, wearing his too-tight “Kid A” t-shirt and and peeling fake Pumas. He was a reformed nerd who somehow shed his former social awkwardness on a ten-hour trans-Pacific flight, and arrived in Shanghai with all the edges smoothed away and none of the joints showing. He was managed a production facility in Pudong that made the eyes for stuffed toys. He had a girlfriend in Hong Kong whom none of us had ever met and whose existence we all privately doubted.
Craig would come bounding in at about ten past, very handsome and all smiles. He was hard, and a bully, and was always doing things that would have gotten him arrested in the States. He drank less than the rest of us, but he was more reckless. He was always talking about moving to Dubai, “where the action is.” I don’t know that any one of us liked Craig, but Chloe had adopted him, and that was enough for us.
The last to arrive would be Steve, tall, gentle and loose-limbed, who showed up everywhere very late and slightly breathless. Steve was the only A.B.C. (American-Born Chinese) in our group, and so he was the most American. Whenever we met a new Chinese-American, we took a moment to size them up, a moment that asked, Are you like us, or are you like them? Steve picked our side, and everyone liked him for it.
East/West was not a very a good diner – in fact, it was a poor one – but I still found myself there, alone, at 2pm on Sunday, picking over a greasy Cesar salad and missing my phone. Somehow I’d missed everyone – they must have gone to KABB for the Bloody Marys. I couldn’t get a hold of anyone without my phone, and for the first time since arriving in Shanghai years ago, I felt anonymous. I also felt tender and tired from the hangover, and the idea of buying a new phone seemed impossibly daunting.
I came here for a job, an internship with Goldman-Sachs, and when I quit that job, just stopped showing up one day, everyone at home assumed I would come back. I assumed I would come back, too. But I wasn’t ready yet. I already had a lease and an ayi and a standing appointment at Laris on Thursday nights for half-priced martinis. I felt like I was in the middle of something big, like I’d rode into an Old West town right before the gold rush.
Of course, it could be boring. Every week was the same – the same drink specials and the same jokes, the same su zui. Only the people changed, arriving and then going back home and leaving us here. But there were many little adventures which kept us from getting too bored. The funny stories of trying to communicate with gestures; the scavenger hunts for cranberry sauce, deodorant, and Mexican food. All the ways we replicated a very particular type of American life here – baseball games, keg parties, even miniature golf. Of course, there were better ball games, better diners at home, but here it was all ours.
Chloe was different, though. She never talked about going home. She was home. Everyone else spun into her orbit and spun out again, but she was always there, exerting the same force, always the same. As far as I knew, she had never had a boyfriend all the time she’d been here, and she was gracefully chaste at dive bars like C’s and The Hut. Occasionally, we’d have to carry her small frame to a waiting taxi, but no one ever carried her out on the other side. Somehow she always got home alone.
I picked over my Cesar salad at the diner, eating out all the croutons. The dressing was Thousand Island, and the salad was topped with chopped tomato and bacon bits. East/West could be a pretty convincing place, with red leatherette seats and chrome fixtures, but of course, it was false, too. Strips of duct tape held down the front carpet, and rivulets of glue ran down over the window ledges. Like everything in Shanghai, it looked hasty, all show. It was meant to be viewed from a taxi, in a tipsy haze. It was never meant to be really looked at.
I called for my check at the diner and contemplated my day. The afternoon stretched out ahead of me. It was murderously hot, the cicadas were screaming in the trees, this high, reverberating wail that seems to swell without ever breaking. By now my friends would have finished their Bloody Marys and pancakes, and gone off to the fabric market or to get a massage or to the DVD store to see if the first season of “Heroes” was out yet. I was embarrassed to feel so lonely. I didn’t have the energy for anything, but I didn’t want to go home to my sagging little place, and watch the ayi mutely push the dust under the furniture. A massage seemed like the most I could muster. Also, I hoped I might find my friends there.
The local massage place was dimly lit and smelled of pork dumplings and gently rotting garbage. The front parlor was lush and over-furnished; the back, spare and rotten. Mold ran over the places where the floor boards didn’t quite join the wall. There was one of those waving cats by the heavy glass doors and a large gilt fish tank by the cash register. A cardboard Santa Claus hung in the front windows, sun-faded to a uniform pale orange.
My massage girl was an extremely young woman with a broad, joyful face and a ragged, incongruously punk haircut, streaked here and there with light, rusty brown. She wore a low-slung, tight denim skirt and short, nylon, flesh-colored socks under scuffed, white sandals. She was also wearing a t-shirt that read “I Love Elmo.” It was impossible to tell whether anyone wore these things ironically. I wasn’t even sure the Chinese were capable of irony. I would have guessed not, but maybe theirs was just a darker, more convoluted irony that I couldn’t understand – that old inscrutable thing.
I took a seat in the empty communal room, and a few minutes into my head and shoulder massage, a white guy came and sat down beside me, his massage girl trailing behind. The whole room was empty, and I was annoyed he picked the chair right next to mine. He was middle-aged and artificially youthful; he looked like a man who lived his life expecting something. There was something hopeless about his too-new Tommy Bahamas shirt and his skinny legs wading in baggy shorts. No sooner did he sit down than he said, “Hi, I’m Frank.” Or Fred, I don’t remember which.
My girl tugged lightly on my hair, stretching my scalp and briefly forcing open my eyelids. “Hi,” I said, trying to conceal the aggravation I felt at Frank’s clear violation of massage protocol. A little bubble of silence opened up between us.
“Well, isn’t this romantic?” he said, looking around the dark room with a voice somewhere next to sincere. “We should hold hands.” He held out his hand, flexed and wiggled his fingers, laughing. I laughed back and closed my eyes again, my hands rigidly locked in my lap.
“Do you live here?”
“Do you work here, or are you a student?”
“I came out here as an intern, and now I do freelance graphic design.”
I had started with no experience as a designer and no credentials, not even a resume, but no one had ever asked. And it was so easy – it’s so easy to live here – I could get by on just a few jobs a month. Chloe gave me my first job, designing the flyers for her nightclub venture. There were always new restaurants and bars opening up, and everyone needed a logo and website and invitations for their Grand Opening. In one month, I did Grand Opening invitations for three clubs in the same venue, one after the other.
“How long are you out here for?”
“I’m not sure. Probably another three months.”
My deadline was always three months out, but three months was only 12 weekends, and they all went by so fast. One flyer for a German DJ would pay for 27 martinis. At the same time, you couldn’t commit to anything – to a relationship, to a new phone – when the next month you really might go back.
“I’m from Miami, I’m out here on business. I fly out here every two weeks – to Hangzhou and Guangzhou, or to Shanghai.” He spoke to me with the same emphatic carefulness he used when speaking to the Chinese girls, as if he didn’t trust that any of us really spoke English.
His massage girl pounded away at his neck with a look of mild disapproval. My own girl went on working with quick, dry fingertips, inconspicuous and professional. I tipped my head back slightly to catch her eye, and she gave me a funny eyebrow raise and a skimming smile of commiseration. I opened my mouth to say something, but all I could come up with was meiguo shangren, American businessman.
My girl weighed my attitude before she made any reply, and then let a little light pass quickly over the surface of her eyes, like breath on a mirror. It all hung in the air before she gently pressed my head down and I turned back to Fred.
“You fly to China every two weeks? That must be very tiring.” I noticed that the skin on his throat was growing slack.
He gave a small, lonely shrug. “I came right here from the airport,” in answer. The massage parlor’s air conditioner kept up a light, arrhythmic tapping. I listened for the massage girls’ breathing, but it was impossibly quiet. It was hard to believe my girl was really there, behind her fingers. I fell asleep and when I woke up, I felt loose and unfastened – my joints didn’t seem to fit together exactly.
Just as I left the massage place, it began to rain, abruptly, like a badly edited movie. There would be no hope of a taxi now. I wondered where my friends were. Was it happy hour somewhere already? Would I run into them? I was more than ready for a drink.
Last night Chloe, Dan, Craig, and I were the last to go home. We stayed at C’s until 3am and then wandered back to Dan’s, where he sat in his compound’s scrubby courtyard until well past sunrise. We had all been drinking for more than eighteen straight hours, and we joked about going for a record. We were all tired, and there wasn’t much going on, but no one wanted to be the first to break the spell. It seemed like something – I don’t what, a funny story to tell, a good memory – and we didn’t want to give up on it yet.
Chloe looked sober, but she was tightly wound and weepy underneath. Her face was ashy and soft around her chin. She was talking in a broken way about going back to Baltimore. Her mother was getting older; she wanted her to come home.
“We’re not bad people,” Chloe said. At the time, the notion seemed quaint. I had never thought of people as being good or bad before.
I found a taxi at last, but by then I was almost home. I still got in, just to enjoy the lucky feeling of finding a taxi in the rain. “Welcome to Jin Jiang taxi,” chirped the automated voice.
“Where are you going?” the driver asked, in Chinese.
“Dagu Lu, Shimen Yi Lu.” I figured I might as well buy some DVDs for the night ahead.
“Where are you from? France?”
“Oh, America,” he chuckled. “Very good, very good.” A stubby thumbs-up.
I laughed in my noncommittal way.
“Do you want to take the elevated road?” he asked.
“Sure, we can do that. Whatever you want,” the last part in English.
The driver pulled up onto the highway and into a solid column of taxis steaming in the wet heat, no one moving. He pointed ahead and made some exasperated comment I couldn’t understand.
“There are many cars,” I said. “It’s raining.”
The driver made a reply, this time more emphatic. He sounded like he was speaking Shanghainese and not Mandarin, the rhythms were all off.
“It’s too hot,” I said, exhausting all my taxi vocabulary.
The driver prattled on. He was driver number 287,654, according to the license posted on the dash, and had earned only one star out of four on his driving test. The photo looked so little like him, I wondered if he was driving on another person’s license.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. My Chinese is not good.”
He looked back at me once, then turned forward again without regarding what I’d said. He began to talk again, tapping his cheeks.
“You are very pretty.”
I smiled demurely and pretended not to understand. He tapped his cheeks again, then his eyes, nose, and mouth in turn. He was breaking the contract between drivers and passengers, between us and them.
He talked on, beaming, full of gestures. The cab jerked and lunged over the elevated road, sliding between tour buses and minivans, audacious and at ease. I made a show of putting in my iPod earphones and turning the machine on. I looked resolutely out the window at the streams of identical muddy Volkswagens. I watched the cranes and the accumulating skyline. Whenever I glanced at the rear-view mirror, he would catch my eye and then went talking on again. I turned up my iPod and sagged back on the seat.
The driver talked and laughed and drank from the tea container holstered on the cloudy Plexiglas partition surrounding the driver’s seat. He pointed at the radio as if to say, “Can you believe this?” and he sang along with the songs. He smelled of green tea and whiskey. When he saw he was failing to get my attention, he began to tap on the steering wheel, first softly and then in a loud, steady slap. I glanced up once, got caught, and looked out the window again, as though something happening outside there was too fascinating to look away from. There was a soggy pool of sunflower seeds around my feet.
“Do you want a cigarette?” he asked.
“No, I don’t smoke.”
He laughed again and lit up one himself. The smoke mingled with the whiskey smell. At Dagu Lu, I leapt out, grateful that you don’t tip in China. There was no way to quantify how I felt about the driver.
I slammed the door and plunged into the wet, sticky heat and the cicadas' long, mechanical howls. It was still raining but softer now, without passion, automatic and unserious like the little puffs of breath and tears that come after a long crying jag.
I walked on Dagu Lu, heat-dazed and dimly nauseous. I passed a man on the street, bathing placidly in the stream from a broken fire hydrant. Soap and grey water ran along the sidewalk and pooled between the cracked cement slabs. I picked my way around the pools and no one looked up at me. Two girls in school uniform walked arm and arm, up and down the sidewalk, their matching feet in those plastic nubby sandals.
Movie World had a complete copy of “Heroes,” at last. I thought about picking up an extra boxed set for Chloe, but she might already have it and I didn’t have my phone, so there was no way to find out.
It would be almost time to meet up with everyone for dinner, but I didn’t have my phone. I felt sober, straight-backed. I took a taxi back to my apartment. I started up “Heroes,” disc one. I got out my laptop, went to Travelocity.com and started pricing my tickets home.
Chloe had left me a Facebook message: “Are you going to the Bar Rouge party on Tuesday?”
The city was too big, and everyone found ways to make it smaller.
Summer Kumar is a freelance writer from Los Angeles, currently living in Shanghai,
China. She is a contributor to artnet, the San Francisco Chronicle , Small
Spiral Notebook, Newsweek Select, Tripmaster Monkey, ALARM, Identity Theory,
Rain Taxi, and many other publications.