Published in a book of short stories by HAL Press.
At Linping Rd. metro station, I disembarked- a friend had told me of a party in this neighborhood that was supposed to be very strange. I had fled to this city some months ago; in Chicago I felt swathed like an infant in the culture I had grown up in, and had wanted the stimulation of sudden deprivation- I thought that I was coming to a city resembling both the past and the future, but not any present I’d ever known. The life I made was very easy; somehow, it seemed very natural to find myself soaring across the peripheral highways in taxis, receiving large payments of cash, walking through twilit streets full of rapid, interrogating pairs of eyes- in fact, much more natural than the pedestrian fate I had in my own womblike country. I felt more and more an urge to recapture the initial rush of arrival, to plunge myself ever deeper into an existence that seemed at once foreign and more deeply human than any I’d ever known.
Rising from the tunnel. An infant playing with some toy, dawdling across the long, 20 yard space intended for commuters; at 8 PM, it’s empty. Walking into the street, walking into a wave of heat and noise; a crowd gathered around a flatbed truck heaped with watermelons, pudgy men in sleeveless tops flicking ash from their cigarettes on the ground. The architecture of Hongkou district is fascinating; I’ve never seen a more thorough rebuke to modernism. The pallid tower blocks found in every city in the world are here, too; but the impulse that they represent, to formalize and sanitize human life, is absolutely defeated, and they slump, light evaporating from certain windows, into the true space of habitation that the street has become. In this area, I’ve seen every human act conceivable take place in the street- a remembered night, two old men screaming at each other, arms splaying out into slaps that missed; pissing on a pile of bricks in a construction site, a transexual asked me coyly ‘XXXXXX’ I’ve ever seen a mother holding her child over a trashcan as his bowels emptied. The prostitutes who boredly play cards and spit melon seeds from red-lamp-lit rooms have always fascinated me, if only because I can’t imagine what sex with them is like- are there hidden rooms within these rooms, ratty mattresses flung on the floor? Would they laugh, leer or weep after- or just not say anything at all?
I had come by myself because I wanted to be free to do whatever I wanted, or things even that I didn’t want to do, but felt that I should. Strolling closer, the buildings all tainted with strange spots and smudges, so much so that I cleaned my glasses repeatedly. This was the season of eating crayfish, and vast vats full of the strange creatures, chili and oil simmered on all sides, bordered with tables of the kind of young men who anywhere else would try to mug me; here, they just glare. Looking at street numbers, I thought I’d missed it- the staircase was well-hidden. The club had opened in the 1980s, when it had to be totally secret. Its existence was still only passed on by word of mouth, though I guess the police have figured it out by now. A ground floor with a sign indicating saunas, rentable for 10RMB an hour; a buddha with some incense; a dirty floor reminiscient of a bathroom stall made enormous- chuckling men departing. An unhappy woman drinking murky tea from a plastic bottle took 5RMB as I ascended, a ballroom floor in front of me.
Shanghai’s working class gay men have gathered here for the last 20 years, ages 20-60. I’ve never seen such an inclusive place, it makes me think of what the first days of house music must have been like. The absolute search for human freedom is located amidst leering taxi drivers, divans that are in fact the recuperated seats from crashed cars, an assortment of card tables with boiled water in thermoses, green tea leaves and plastic cups. Though beer is cheap here, nearly as cheap as in a convenience store, I’m the only one drinking. On the stage is the house band- a man playing the synthesized piano, a saxophonist, a man singing with great emotion- his voice nearly breaking into sobs- KTV classics, with lyrics which express the banality of true love. They’re extremely out of tune, with reverb that makes their music an echo of itself, but I think this is better. Though many of the customers are seated, many, muscular, scarred, with brushcut hair, are waltzing, or polka-ing, or doing some sort of weird chinese equivalent- the way one dances if one has only ever heard of dancing via watching a pirated DVD of a Jane Austen novel. Men speak to me eagerly, telling me absurd lies about having lived in Boston for 20 years, etc. A wiry man wearing makeup, but also with home-made tattoos on his arms, is dancing exquisitely, and I wonder with a start of his wife knows where he is. The amount of happiness in the room is so vast, the tight corset of traditional values loosened, each face shining in the way that is only possible for faces that are typically scowling. Going to the bar, I briefly chat with a younger man while waiting, and he asks if I want to try something, he says a specific word but I didn’t know what K-fen meant. OK, I follow his beckoned hand into an alcove where a table has been cleared of the thermoses and cups. 3 serious looking others were waiting for us, as I introduce myself my friend takes out some white powder, I wondered if it was coke for a second but then assumed probably not, unless there’s a source I don’t know of- the people I knew who did coke in Shanghai paid almost as much as a months rent here for 2 grams. The powder, chopped up with a subway card, is grainier and sharper looking anyway. As it drips through my nose I recognize ketamine, though different seeming than what I’ve done before. I remember trying to talk for a while and then feeling dazed, sinking into the couch, the dinning, shrill song swarming around me.
A dream within a dream, the dark colors of the club, of black, straight eyebrows over brown and gleaming orbs, of flesh dripping with sweat, of smoke rotating towards the ceiling, of half empty green bottles, their foamy contents growing lukewarm, - I went to get a breath of air,
I guess it’s predictable that in the bathroom everyone would try to catch a glimpse of my XXXX and I feel bad for a second- it’s kind of unfair to go to gay bars if you aren’t gay. I climbed through the bathroom window onto a bamboo superstructure, I think the floor above was under construction. I don’t smoke but I take a cigarette from the several proffered, looking at the city as the sun sets, the street on which an hour ago I was searching, the barbecue vendors yelling into the darkness, the endless roofs of this city spreading out like the grains of sand on a beach beneath my feet, which I let dangle into the air… the atmosphere ochre, but it doesn’t smell bad. How can the disorganized individuals of which I am one create monuments to their own existence as vast as this city? Looking south, I can just barely see the riverbanks’ proud towers, and imagine the elegant women strutting downtown, the moody crowd surging along the main arteries of the center, … it’s only 9 o’clock, and this place closed soon.
I walk back inside to the noise, trying to chart my way on a path through haze… the guys I was talking to earlier sign that they’re leaving, and to follow. Dizzy, I try to follow the group to the park, but get sidetracked by my thirst- my throat feels parched and dusty, I drink some coconut milk and a liter of beer, sitting at a yellow picnic table fixed into the concrete. M. calls me, wondering if I’m still at home- it’s Friday, after all, and things started so early that I’d not thought to ask her what her plans were. Something stupid, a bar in one of those distant buildings I’d thought about. I’m walking again, and think about inviting her here to a hotel, but I guess that’d be a waste of her outfit. The streets here, like waves in a stormy ocean, spiral inwards and crash against each other in unexpected ways, and I find myself at the dead-end of an alley. I hail a taxi and go to the world of lights again.
Lying in her bed that night, I open the window to let in the breeze- nighttime is the only time the temperature is pleasant in summertime Shanghai. Normally I go right to sleep, and though I feel a deep exhaustion, a strange need overcomes me, and I wake her up. We drink a pot of green tea and I try to express to her the horrible loneliness that I feel, that it seems to me that every single person is looking for an impossible to find tranquility, that every step I have taken through a succession of jungle-cities in the past 4 years has not led me any closer to understanding myself, but it’s impossible to explain. When I try to tell her why I feel drawn ever forward to new things, she frowns; when I tell her I feel alone, her embrace only gives me the chills because it illustrates my solitude. It’s always difficult to communicate but even harder when one uses a language stumblingly, like a child (if a child talked about things like that, which they typically don’t). I accepted her embrace anyway and hold her as tightly as I can without hurting her. It’s as if we’ve evolved to be capable to solve certain problems which our recent ancestors solved, and there’s a void, a set of skills and instincts that cry out to be used, but have no practical application anymore, which bore into my inside like a nest of termites. In this place which I expected to be a drop of water in an ocean of -a different kind of water than I am? It’s hard to find an exact metaphor; I instead find a return to the same preoccupations I have always had. She goes back to sleep and I borrow her key to walk to the store.
In front of the Zhongshan Rd. metro station, a puddle of vomit catches my eye, shining under streetlights; a young woman crouches in front of it, nearly in tears; her boyfriend, soothing her and petting her, glares at me furiously. The streets aren’t silent; cars occasionally cruise past, but I’m unused to seeing the place like this. This place, a collection of vast structures, of train-rails that sail through the sky, of neon-lit emporiums, of huge thoroughfares; its oppressive yet attractive, without the strain of living close to other people, I’d be too bored to live. How did such a place come about, though, who thought it would be a good idea for people to live like this? Is there an author to this city, or did it emerge like a lichen or moss, crawling with increasing intensity, devouring the land on which it lies? The world is how it is, and evidently I am more interested in understanding it than changing it, so I need to accept it.
Back in her flat, the sweet moonlight glancing off of objects which didnt deserve it; fashion magazines, ashtrays, clothes flung off hurriedly. Her sleeping face peaceful and calm as never in waking life. I straightened my back against the mattress and settled down to go to sleep, though I doubted it would come…