You think you may smoke a cigarette. The sun is shining. It is one o’clock in the afternoon. You decide not to, you are trying not to smoke more than one a day. Instead you go for a walk. You know you will go to Lotus where you always seem to walk.
Today, you realize you are a global transient, a self-assigned refugee. Others know what they are to do with their lives. You still question yours. ‘Don’t panic,’ you tell yourself, advice from a friend at the beginning of the end of the last century. Now, somehow, you find yourself in China, walking along a canal on a sunny spring day. The smell of the water brings back memories of the creek by which you were raised. The creek you fell into many times when walking along its edge. Somewhere here there is a life metaphor.
There is romanticism in solitude. You are a priest among young clinging Chinese couples. They cling to each other and walk along the path or make out on benches. You want to sit and write but you do not want to invade the spring-ness of their love. They know this is their time. They are blooming or are about to.
A barge rolls by sending waves crashing against the canal wall. You wave to the woman who sits on the front like a tarnished hood ornament. A gravel pit separates her from her husband who is steering the barge. The cabin door is open. You see their personal effects on a counter. You feel like an intruder. “I know something about opening windows and doors.”
You take a detour. You walk through unfamiliar neighborhoods. You come upon a pavilion like the kind that holds livestock in a county fair. You walk inside. This pavilion reminds you of Dewey, Ponca City, Sapulpa. You think you may be a ghost, a ghost from county fair past.
No one stares at you. Usually, they stare at you. You are an oddity, an oddity in your new home. Are you indeed a ghost? You nearly bump into three people. They do not notice. There minds are on splayed chicken, Chinese vegetables, writhing river snakes packed in big Tupperware tubs. Tupperware is worldwide.
The deeper you walk toward the core of the building the more you feel like an unnoticed, unwanted outsider. A strange panic hits you. You walk back to the entrance. You are sweating. A group of men sitting on motor-less three wheelers laugh and say something. You wonder if they are talking to you. One of the men smiles at you. You may not be a ghost after all.
You think of the 13 students who are to visit the school in June. They are visiting from San Diego, escorted by their afraid-of-Communist-China parents. For the first time it hits you, you live in Communist China. You wonder what that means.
Off the main road, you wander into a store that sells kitchen ware and house slippers. You look at an interesting primitive stir fry pan with rough welded edges around the handles. You pick it up to give it a closer inspection. The proprietress points to a cheaply made aluminum new one. You shake your head no.
You think of the frustration you are having with your oil painting. Spray paint, you think, may add the magic that it needs. You are in the vicinity of the paint store where you bought the turpentine. You head that way.
You take a short cut through a gated guarded apartment complex. The guard stares at you. You walk through the gate. You keep walking. You wonder if you are trespassing. Someone calls. You hesitate before you look back. The guard has not moved. A man on a scooter greeted a neighbor.
You think of oral English and radio stations. You have class 11 tomorrow with Bizmark, Orange, Fish, Fred, Potato. You have not prepared an oral lesson. Lately, you think of some activity when you are walking into class. Will a student radio station come to be here in Songjiang a district of Shanghai? You think about the first song you will play. Bowie’s ‘I am the Djay,’ of course, comes to mind. Yes, Bowie shall have the honor of breaking the proverbial champagne bottle to christen the station before sailing into the airwaves of the unknown. Bowie has been good to your psyche, to your lifelong sense of alienation.
Out of nowhere, you think of your friend Debbie. Half a globe away, she is staging a musical. Opening night was Thursday, you suddenly remember.
You walk through the home store mall, to the paint store. Your turpentine tango partner is working. You successfully – a round of applause – pantomime spray paint. He shakes his head no. You pull out your phrase book and point to ‘where to’ in Chinese – which is the closest to ‘where’ you can find in the book. Again, he shakes his head no. You leave. You stop at another paint store which is not in the mall but across the street from the home store mall which is down the street from Lotus (which might- more or less-be the center of your universe now). Again, you successfully pantomime spray paint to the two clerks that are manning the store. They shake their head no. The store is tiny. You know they do understand and yes, they have no spray paint.
You walk around the Chinese strip mall aimlessly. The dilemma with the painting would have easily been solved with the spray paint. Perhaps, this is a life metaphor.
You get the jones to write. This is your new jones. Vodka martinis are a lifetime a way. You look for a coffee shop to fix. You are a junk-less junkie, a dog in heat.
You stop at U.B.C. coffee, a big elegant 2 story coffee shop. An oboe Muzak version of “Imagine” plays. In 1971, is this how Lennon imagined China in 2006?
You order a pot of mocha coffee for 50 kuai (a little over $6). You write like a fiend as you look out the window at the monochromatic color scheme of green. Occasionally, you look the other way, to the entrance where the curved aquarium greets customers. The goldfish crowding together look like an Associated Press photo –as it is being developed, still watery - of raised fists.
After you write all that is in your brain you get the check. You pay it and leave. You pass a milk drink tea stand where drinks are 2.5 kuai. You try to do the math of how much you would have saved if you had not got coffee but got a milk drink. Your brain cannot handle it. You tell yourself screw it.
You wander into the trinket shop that you are sure supplies places like ‘Claire’s’ and ‘Hot Topic’ in the mall. You look at a frayed brown trucker hat with a skeleton printed on it. You like the kitschy-ness of it. You may come back and buy it soon. It is 12 kuai –less than $2. You go upstairs and look at the socks.
The clerk who helped you the other day is there. He is happy to see you. He goes and gets a basket. You kindly shake your head no and smile. He smiles too. You have maybe made his day. He loves it when the oddity stops to shop at the shop where he works. He is probably still in high school. He still has that innocence. Innocence is safeguarded here. China could make a fortune selling innocence to America. Parents would buy it by the truckload for sons and daughters driving their fossil fuel depleters away from keggers to rehab.
He follows you around upstairs as you look at cheap oil pastels, socks – briefly, there are no new arrivals since the other day – and lights that attach to books or sit on bedside tables but are minute. A female wanders up and says a few words in English and then starts speaking Chinese like you will understand since the introduction was in English. The basketless clerk stands by her side smiling, hoping his pet oddity will start talking in a stream of Chinese. This does not happen. You tell them you will be back –they nod their heads yes but they do not understand – and you go across the street to Lotus. There seems to be a gravitational pull which pulls you to Lotus at this stage. You always need something there or need to look for something there or you just might need to look at the adult milk powder to make sure it exists.
In Lotus, you buy some cheap oil pastels for your painting. A boy - a young teen, hitting puberty like Ike used to hit Tina - brushes past you and rubs your arm while you are looking at the oil pastels. He says hello and smiles as he walks past. He is wearing a short t-shirt that does not quite cover his thin boyish stomach. ‘Cindy’ is printed on the t-shirt. You try not to be - but you are - slightly aroused. He swaggers over to the balcony and watches the people go down the stair-less escalator, the diagonal conveyor belt. He eyes a group of boys coming up the oversized conveyor belt as you are going down the conveyor belt. Your eyes meet again. He smiles at you one last time.
You leave Lotus. You say hello, as always, to the gang of 125 cc gypsy cab bikers. A Chorus of hellos comes back at you. You take a different route through the gated, guarded apartment complex. The sun has gone down. People are returning to their homes from a day’s or a weekend’s worth of escape. The working week is silently, steadfastly approaching.
And then the smallest, most wonderful thing happens. A scooter motors past carrying a boy and his dad with what is probably a week or two weeks worth of laundry in a couple of bags securely tied to the back of the scooter. The boy turns around as the scooter passes and in clipped syllables accented wrongly, he says “Ello Tyson” The boy is Bizmark. His dad is scootering him back to school. The smile does not leave for at least twenty minutes, maybe the smile is still hanging out a half hour later.
Back at the apartment, you work on the painting. You are trying to not paint a self portrait. Your painting is starting to become a self-portrait. You entitle it ‘My deconstructionist days are numbered.’ You mean something different. You rename it ‘I’m a deconstructionist; My days are numbered.’ You may add three numbers to it; your childhood phone number prefix - 336. You smoke a cigarette.
You remember being 12 years old. Your father told your mother he thought he might be Satan. He worked on the 6th floor of Phillips 66. Your phone number was 336-3691. Back then people seldom needed to use area codes because everyone lived closer to each other than they do now. Now people live in China, New York City, Los Angeles, Guthrie.
8:25 PM, the floodlights are off. The construction site is abandoned. Figures seem to move within. I know no one is there. The place is starting to look like a derelict building with bars around it instead of something new.
There is a light knock on your door. You jump a little. Maureen tells you someone tried to open her door early this morning. She was very scared. She asks if it was you. Of course, it was not. You tell her you have been reading all sorts of tales in the Shanghai Daily about angry migrant workers which involve landladies getting beaten with hammers.
You then tell her she needn’t worry. The would-be intruder was probably a student. When you go back to your apartment you check every possible place where an intruder might hide. You are afraid to go out on the balcony.
You remember you have no dress shirts for the coming week. You pull all five out of your clothes hamper and throw them in the washer after you rub the collars with random Chinese dishwashing liquid. You are still skittish. You hope that a hammer wielding psychotic migrant worker has not hid somewhere. Did you check under the fabulous new orange sofa? You then remember you have not seen your Prada dress shirt in awhile. Did you leave it at the cleaners in New York?