*Originally published in MaLa Literary Journal, Issue 3, June, 2013
Shanyang wasn’t a slow walker, no not at all. Typically he rolled down the sidewalks at a reckless pace, falling forward more than walking. He was lucky his feet were always there to catch him. Everyday he barreled this way along the six city blocks separating the bookstore where he worked and the two-room apartment he shared with four other twentysomething migrants. There was a theater along the way, a very nice one, all things considered, that occasionally featured signposts for bad versions of Shakespeare. There were nine convenience stores, two of which had pretty sales clerks. There was a splotch of tar on the fourth block shaped like Italy, real city spit, and five traffic lights that had never once turned green. But Shanyang never could have told you any of this, disregarding the tar stain, whose map-like qualities he felt proud for recognizing. Everything else was just token scenery. Always rushing downhill, chin to chest, it was generally only things like sidewalk splatter and cigarette stubs that spoke to him.
In fact, if you asked Shanyang to draw a map (of his commute home, not Italy – he would’ve nailed that), it would only feature a single straight line. It probably wouldn’t even reach the proper destination. Most likely it would end on block five, devolving into a whirlwind of calligraphy and daydreaming pencil trails. It would almost certainly tell you to look to your left, and go on to describe everything and nothing you might see with photographic detail. Everything because it was the only thing he looked at, every single day, on his walk home from work. Nothing because the only thing he looked at…was her, the girl in the qipao.
She was always there, at exactly 7:14 PM. Everyday her blue parasol resting on her shoulder, balanced on the silk threads of her fingers. Everyday her sharp little chin weighted down (Shanyang could certainly identify with that feeling), making her watery eyes look even bigger, even rounder. Everyday legs crossed and tucked beneath her, everyday tiny lobeless ears peeking out from her long black hair like moonbeams, everyday wearing the same dress that was born long, long ago, in a time when music and art and fashion were all the same. You couldn’t really say that it was the dress Shanyang noticed, but you couldn’t say it wasn’t either, because they were inseparable, this girl and her qipao. It wasn’t the embarrassing kind of qipao foreign girls put on for wine tastings and charity dinners at downtown hotels. It was a genuine, jazz-era Shanghai qipao. And a stunning one at that. Blue like a dirty sapphire. Gold trim so ornate it was almost tacky. And everyday, every single single single day, Shanyang glanced to his left for five infinite seconds, maybe less, to make sure she was still there.
And she was always there, sitting on the same marble bench in front of the same theater beneath the same four year old-signs for The Tempest. Shanyang thought she was a statue at first – some sort of ludicrously elaborate promotion for an upcoming show, some sort of darling advertisement for a play people would only pretend to pay attention to. But then, on the fourth walk home after he first noticed her, she sighed. Oh, how she sighed. It wasn’t until he arrived at the next block that he realized how the girl’s slight expulsion of breath had made him hold his own. She stole my breath, he thought, more than a little confused.Afterward he wondered, just maybe, if she was a hostess at one of those massage parlors Hong Kong businessmen go to – and a really nice one at that, judging from the quality of her dress. But that couldn’t really be correct, he soon decided, because those hostesses probably get dressed at work. Either way though, she was always sitting there, still as a statue, and everyday Shanyang’s walk home took a second or two longer.
After a week and a half of pretending not to notice his little statue girl, Shanyang realized that he hadn’t quit thinking about her for days. At least two or three times he described her to his roommates over a dinner of UFO instant noodles. As striking as a fish walking down the street. A breathing anachronism (Buy a dictionary, he said). So lovely she made you wish you’d read more poetry. Day in and day out, she fluttered around his head like a glowing blue moth to a plain white candle.
As he pondered this strange development, Shanyang had an epiphany, maybe the first of his life. It might have had something to do with a book he was reading, something pulled from the expansive and poorly organized import shelf at his store (which was, after all, the entire reason he’d applied for the job). Or perhaps it was a book he’d already read, he couldn’t really say for sure. All of a sudden though, he had the very pure realization that this must be what love feels like. Her inky blue black hair, her skin like clean notebook paper, her back like the spine of a dictionary – he loved everything about her. She was his Juliet, he decided. His Cosette. How to translate Cosette into Chinese? he tried but couldn’t remember.
On the twelfth night after he’d first noticed the girl in the qipao, Shanyang climbed to the roof of his apartment building and wrote a poem. He dangled his unwashed and permanently brown feet over the security wall, searching the stars for some clue to immortal beauty. The stars were quiet, but he wrote anyway. Five characters across, four lines down, he plucked a handful of words that fit perfectly into the Tang style. And for a moment, he was satisfied. But the more he read and reread the poem, the less he liked it. A thousand years of literary tradition might not be enough to do her justice. The rhymes, the parallelism of his characters, they paid homage to the wrong hands, he thought. He saw her own, soul-white hands, ever-folded, resting like a book on her lap. Like a book he’d read cover to cover, all through the night, then immediately turn over and read again. In the end, those were the exact words he chose, and structured though they were in eight lines instead of four, she was in them, and her quiet loveliness was wild and free.
Two days later, Shanyang almost wished he hadn’t found those words at all. Fresh from the walk home, his head still swirling in blue typhoon pirouettes, he stepped out of the shower and found Dufeng, his heaviest and least likely to have showered roommate standing on a cot, clearing his throat.
“Chrysanthemum petals don’t fall during the night…” Dufeng closed his eyes in mock sincerity, hand to his heart. His other hand clutched Shanyang’s poem, holding it aloft like a torch. Their three roommates fell back laughing on their own cots, one spitting a mouthful of UFO noodles on the floor at Shanyang’s feet.
“Bastard! Give it back!” Shanyang tackled Dufeng on the cot, ripping the sheet of paper from his hands before leaping backward as his towel fell to the floor. Exposed as he was, his damp penis trying its best to hide behind a hedge of fur, Shanyang didn’t pick up his towel. He just sulked back to the bathroom, dripping wet and naked, trying not to let water stain the page. Towel or not, he’d never felt more naked.
“You’re writing poems about that massage whore!” Dufeng rolled around on his cot. “You’re writing poems…about…a hooker!”
Their cackles bounced like stones tossed across the cold bathroom tile.
Days went by. Shanyang buried his suffering, his persecution on her behalf, beneath a sea of silence. Everyday he glided by, only a strong whisper away from the only beautiful girl in the entire world. At night he rolled around in bed, imagining stories upon stories to explain the color of her dress, the serenity of her loneliness. During the day, he flipped through the English books he was shelving, stealing names for her. He scribbled them on the back of his hand, crossing some out, underlining others, whispering those that were elegant enough, literary enough. Isabel. Sabina. Junan. Naoko…he liked Naoko. He began filling the margins of his own books with her new name, crossing out the lead characters and replacing them with the name of a girl whose swallow shoulders truly could carry the weight of the world’s words. Oh Anna Karen-in a-in a…in a what? How feeble, she was. All those Elizabeths and Janes, all those pitiful women. Daisy became Naoko. Bovary, Bloom, Bart…all Naoko. Hanna became Naoko, and Shanyang the Italian thief creeping noiselessly around her secrets.
On the morning of the twenty-fourth day after he’d first seen the girl in the qipao, Shanyang slumped through the door of Book City. He didn’t bother to brush away the water trickling from his long, poet’s hair. He didn’t even bother to pick up his feet. He just turned and stared back out at the rain falling in knife-edge sheets against the glass. For three weeks, he looked forward to work each day only so he could leave. He only took the job for the discount it earned him, it hardly paid enough to keep him reading anyway, and he’d thought about quitting every day since he began. Every day, that is, until twenty four days earlier. For twenty four days he got to leave, and the sun shone, and he knew for the first time in his life he had some purpose, whatever it was. He’d written six poems and didn’t care what his roommates thought. He’d slept little, and felt more energetic because of it. But on that day, the world outside the window was dripping into the gutter.
He wiped his nose on his sleeve. She wouldn’t be waiting on him. No one waits in the rain.
Even when Xiaoshu, the pudgy sales clerk who consistently smelled like 7/11 fish balls, came galloping out of the rain and smacked face-first into the swinging glass door, Shanyang couldn’t even manage a smirk. When the rail thin Sichuan girl from the China Mobile store next door offered him a sticky meat bun at lunch, he just sighed and walked away.
What’s his problem?
Heartbroken over a girl, I guess.
Really? I thought he was gay?
No, just a poet.
Even on the walk home, as water seeped through the hole in the bottom of his only right shoe, Shanyang didn’t pick up his pace. He decided that, for once, he only wanted to write about rain. How could he run from it?
As he sloshed down the steps of the theater block underpass, Shanyang decided he wouldn’t even cast his usual sidelong glance. The bench would be empty, he just knew it, filled with rain. But very quickly, that emptiness changed his mind. Maybe, because she isn’t there, he could be closer to her than ever. For the first time all day, he smiled, knowing there was a place for him to sit in the rain, a place to wait. How very poetic, he thought.
He rounded the lychee tree-lined promenade, the walls of performance flyers and marble arcades where old ladies played badminton, and started toward the rain-whipped plaza he always hid from. He kept his head down, knowing it would take exactly thirty-two steps after the cracked-green, unhinged recycling bin. After twenty-eight steps, Shanyang finally looked up. And he froze.
He didn’t mean to freeze, he just did. There was nothing else he could do. Standing there, sniffling, eyebrows scrunched together, he was acutely aware that the bench, her bench, now closer than it had ever been, was the only dry bench in the city. For the first time in twenty four days, from beneath a blue umbrella, the girl in the qipao looked up.
There they were, two sides of a movie screen. Two actors, two audiences. They were just there. And there they were. And she was there. And she was there. And suddenly, Shanyang realized that he was scared to death. His eyebrows popped like broken guitar strings. His eyes scrambled from side to side. He watched himself toe the oily puddle beneath his shoe, shifted his weight, began turning very slowly in hopes that he’d just disappear behind a perfectly angled sheet of rain. His feet were moving of their own accord, and he wasn’t sure why, or how. And there wasn’t a thought in his head, no sound anywhere at all, not even in the violent beating of his heart.
And then there was.
“Do you need an umbrella?” said the girl in the qipao.
Just like that, at the bell chime sound of a completely normal, completely unremarkable female voice, a universe of rain drops slowed to a quiet stop. They hung there in the air, spinning on tiny diamond pivots, and all the world was waiting for them to fall.
“No…ummm…no thank you.”
And again, there they were. Silent for a few more unusual, but for some reason that Shanyang would never figure out for the rest of his life, not terribly awkward moments.
“I think you do.”
With her free hand, the girl in the qipao folded her dress at the waist, lifting its gold hem a few inches above the murky stream sliding away beneath her feet, revealing exactly the pair of delicately embroidered slippers Shanyang had imagined. He didn’t notice though. He was drunk with the sight of her ankles. For some reason, their fine, bone white curves made him think of violin music. The girl in the qipao stood up and brought them closer to him.
They walked in complete silence, shoulder to shoulder. One block slid past, two, a hundred. A thousand city blocks, a thousand cities could have floated by and Shanyang never would have known. They were blanketed in office buildings that had no name, in sidewalks and street lamps that weren’t there, that couldn’t ever be there, not in the silliest of stories. Shanyang would never remember what that day looked like ever again. All he’d ever remember were two pairs of feet, tip-toeing through rain puddles, side by side.
As they approached the footbridge that led Shanyang home, the girl in the qipao broke the silence.
“You know, I’ve seen you before.”
And all the world’s rain remembered to fall.
Twenty minutes later, or a few lifetimes in Shanyang’s mind, the two of them were standing in the alleyway leading to his apartment. They’d made very small talk, mostly her asking where he worked, where he’s from, how he managed to deal with such messy hair. Shanyang could hardly answer at first; he was too worried about his wet clothes rubbing against her dress. But as the cars and red lights, alleys and convenience stores passed by, he realized that the girl in the qipao talked, amazingly, like a girl, and the words fell out of his mouth easier than they ever had. Once or twice they even laughed, him like a soaking wet poet, she like a bird. But as they stood there beneath a lamp post, itself aching to flicker on, a hush fell between them. Shanyang didn’t want her to see the crumbling walls of his castle, so he just nodded, biting his lip.
“Well,” she said, “I’m going on past. My home is four blocks away. Thank you for talking to me.”
“I should thank you…for the umbrella. I guess…I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Probably not. I’m leaving tomorrow.”
Shanyang’s eyes doubled in size and he chewed his lip twice as hard. “Oh, okay. When will you get back?”
The girl rubbed the back of her hand and smiled. “I’m not. I’m going back to my hometown. To get married.”
Shanyang didn’t bother getting out of the rain as he watched her walk away. He couldn’t muster any thoughts at all, not the tiniest specter of a feeling, only moving occasionally to wipe away the rain pooling in his eyes. When the blue flame of her dress finally burned out in the distance, Shanyang turned and looked up at his bedroom window. He knew his cot, new books, a notepad were all waiting on him.
He turned and ran down the alley, toward the girl in the qipao, toward the purpose he finally had, whatever it was.