I’m living in this dump in Haidian Qu, close to
Wudaokou, on the twenty-first floor of a decaying high-rise.
The grounds are bare; the trees have died; the rubber tiles on
the walkways, in their garish pink and yellow, are cracked and
curling. The lights have been out in the lobby since I moved in;
they never finished the interior walls in the foyers outside the
elevator, and the windows are boarded up, so every time I step
outside the apartment door I’m in a weird twilight world of bare
cement and blue fluorescent light.
The worst thing about the foyer is that I might run into Mrs. Hua, who lives next door with her fat spoiled-brat kid. She hates that I’m crashing here, thinks I’m some slutty American who is corrupting China’s morals. She’s always muttering under her breath, threatening to report me to the Public Security Bureau for all kinds of made-up shit. It’s not like I ever did anything to her, and it’s not like I’m doing anything wrong, but the last thing I need is the PSB on my ass.
I’ve got enough problems.
Outside, the afternoon sun filters through a yellow haze. My leg hurts, but I should walk, I tell myself. Get some PT in. The deal I make with myself is, if it gets too bad, I’ll take a Percocet; but I only have about a dozen left, so it has to be really bad before I can take one. Today the pain is just a dull throb, like a toothache in my thigh.
I pass the gas tanks off Chengfu Road, these four-story-high giant globes, and I think: one of these days, some guy will get pissed off at his girlfriend, light a couple sticks of dynamite underneath them (since they don’t have many guns here, the truly pissed-off tend to vent with explosives and rat poison), a few city blocks and a couple thousand people will get incinerated, and everyone will shrug—oh, well, too bad, but this is China, and shit happens. Department store roofs collapse; chemicals poison rivers; miners suffocate in illegal mines. I walk down this one block nearly every day on my way to work, and there are five sex businesses practically next door to each other, “teahouses” and “foot massage parlors,” with girls from the countryside sitting on pink leatherette couches, waiting for some horny migrant worker to come in with enough renminbi to fuck his brains out for a while and forget about the shack he’s living in and the family he’s left behind and the shitty wages he’s earning. Hey, why not?
I still like it here, overall.
I’m just in this bad mood lately.
So I call Lao Zhang. That’s what I do these days when I’m feeling sorry for myself.
“Wei?” Lao Zhang has a growly voice, like he’s talking himself out of a grunt half the time.
“It’s me. Yili.”
That’s my Chinese name, Yili. It means “progressive ideas” or something. Mainly it sounds kind of like Ellie.
“Yili, ni hao.”
He sounds distracted, which isn’t like him. He’s probably working; he almost always is. He’s been painting a lot lately. Before that, he mostly did performance pieces, stuff like stripping naked and painting himself red on top of the Drum Tower or steering a reed boat down the Yangtze with a life-size statue of Karl Marx in the prow.
But usually when I call, he sounds like he’s glad to hear my voice, no matter what he’s doing. Which is one of the reasons I call him when I’m having a bad day.
“Okay, I guess,” I answer. “I’m not working. Thought I’d see what you were up to.”
Excerpted from Rock Paper Tiger by Lisa Brackmann. Copyright © 2010 by Lisa Brackmann. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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