In Shanghai the air is thick. Something like glue and garbage. It’s loud and because I don’t speak the language, it’s lonely. This loneliness is not distracting though, and instead it fuels some sort of nauseating excitement of being somewhere so filthy and far away. I am nobody and yet everybody notices me. On Friday night the hotel bellboy in his long green coat, hails me a cab and I hand the driver my card with an address written in Mandarin for a place in the French Concession. Over the bridge the skyline lights are muddled by the smog and so they melt into each other and I’m reminded of how, as a kid, I used to mix all of the paint together to see what color it would make, and it was always the same mustard brown that I never wanted to use.
I slip into a jazz bar, order a gin and tonic, and throw my bag over the back of the bar stool. The room is smoky and loud, red leather and stained glass behind the stage spells out Cotton Club. The band plays quick jazz, the drummer dripping sweat onto his kit and the pianist wears a black fedora with an ostrich feather and takes sips from a glass of whiskey with one hand, the other still on the keys. The beat slows down and the smokes clears for a moment long enough for me to notice a man with huge blue eyes staring at me with his back against the wall. He has a puppy in a backpack, worn backwards, slung across his chest and a white mannequin with no arms and no legs, but a tiny plastic penis. The mannequin is on the floor and this man is holding his plastic head in his right hand. I look at the mannequin, and then the puppy, and I laugh because I don’t know what else to do. I know that I won’t ask the question of why, and I don’t. Instead we get drunk and eat dumplings outside on the street where an old man and a monkey are dressed in matching sweater vests. We sit on the curb with our feet in the gutter, amongst the tossed toothpicks and paper plates, beer cans, we just sit in the middle of this trash and somehow we talk in slurred shifts. This stranger is from Oregon and he has a good job at an advertising agency here, and he takes photographs, has a full head of thick dark hair, strong arms, and a fear of commitment shown by the way he clings to me: a person who will be gone, as far away from him as possible, in about twelve hours. There is a moon but it doesn’t offer much light, it just hangs low in smog and sits there heavy, like a fat man sleeping in a hammock. The monkey walks over in his red knit vest and touches the puppy’s face with one weird, pink index finger.
How it ends is I’m in a bathtub in my hotel room and the puppy is on the bed looking at me with one ear bent and the man is across from me, nothing but a smile, water up to his chest, where a silver chain and a round medallion lie in just a bit of black hair. He reaches through bubbles and touches the inside of my thigh. Leaning forward, the sound of his body through water after such silence startles me like a migraine, or a knock at the door, and he puts his mouth on my neck. He thinks it’s so odd to take a bath with a stranger. I agree.
A lot of things happened between the moment we first made eye contact and these final hours here now, but what is in the middle is usually unimportant. We have everything in common except for location. Except for the next four hours we will spend in this hotel room on the outskirts of Shanghai; so much lost in a simple plane ride. I know and he knows that it is a nice thought, after all, to be so far away, in a city so big and full of garbage, in which two people such as ourselves could meet and laugh this hard in a bathtub in a hotel room on the outskirts of Shanghai. And there is comfort in knowing we owe each other nothing. And there is a brokenness in knowing we owe each other nothing.
All the men I’ve ever loved have lived far away from me. My therapist says this might be a subconscious decision and not purely circumstantial. I paid her eighty dollars to tell me that.
She asks me if I’m scared to die alone. I tell her I thought that’s how this all worked, anyway.
Christine Pinella is a bay area native currently living and writing in Northern California. She’s the one at the end of the bar with the huge red hair. Christine.Pinella@gmail.com
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Cover Photo: Sama093 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/sama093/)