The night had ended With a stop in a modern Western restaurant, with all things that the Chinese thought should be with such an event – right down to an ornate alchemical faux-symbol carved in stone. Both of them were slightly drunk, and had their hands touching the outside, and then the inside of their garments. But no more than that. The subway ride was intermittently far, but they had things cast as stories to amuse themselves with. They had not unpacked his bags, and they would not do so on this night. They fumbled and had a griany kind of sex – though neither one recalled whether it was good or bad. Or at least another one would have admitted this to the other – there was a shameful kind of knowingness about the pleasures of sex, which they did not break. But all the while, they each bought about whether it was good enough. Because each one of them bought intensely about the sex, though not a word was spoken or a gesture made in this direction.
The next morning, a few things needed to be done, after close had been unpacked and denuded of the kind of grime which one does not know what it is, but one does know that it is from the where and tear of international travel. As the joke goes, white clothing gathers black lint; while dark clothing gathers white lint. They did not eat anything, and she led the way, first two a place where they could get anything in the world made for him; specifically clothes. The short and thin man was pleasant, though he spoke very little English. He measured out a jacket, right on the back of the manufactured cloth, of course on the back side. He measured only once, and then bid them goodbye, to serve the next customer. This was the way of serving people – that had his for the beast. It is a gift.
Then they went to the station, across the river. He had been to Shanghai many times, and each time it had grown larger and more opulent than before. The buildings which represented department stores were still there, and the wide boulevards enticed them to buy if they could. But she was not interested, and went down into the bowels of the Metro station, which he looked at the people. Then he realized that this was not polite, and restrained his looking after that. What had given him the hint was the reflection of her looking off center and upwards; thus he did so as well. Once upon a time the railway was a look of dour, indeed almost darkened in its mood. But he thought nothing more of it because by the time he had started leaving from this station it was called “the New Station” though a bit shabby not less. The railway station station would be joined by three others: this was the station that everyone still gathered around, people could not use the others quite yet. There would even be a terminal from the older airway station – not Pudong. For a few more years this would still be the main terminal. And it felt it, in the spine, some old. Old as No Theatre, changing not minute by minute, but slowly and gradually feeling that “yes, they had forgotten,” as if drifting by the lakeside of a dreamscape. As if a Reed Cutter was standing there amidst some distant past.
Offhand he heard her mention that across the large square, a Western Shanghai station would be constructed to serve the high-speed railway, and soon railway station would be closed. Which is why it was better to take the Metro to the main station.
In a little while, but not to little, they came out of the Metro, and in to a grimy and dirty – but not too dirty, for it had been cleaned the night before – train station. The large hallway to buy the tickets was packed with third class passengers, and even the first class passengers mobbed, rather than orderly buying their tickets. There was a commotion, and he could see that a peasant was asking a very well dressed lady something obscene. He was not very clear, even in the dialect of Mandarin that he spoke, no one could understand him. Then three or four police officers whipped out clubs and beat him to the ground, and whisked him away. Such was the way of dealing with riff raft. It was not very pleasant – but no one noticed it. They got the tickets, and departed. Neither looked back, again, this would not due.
They were on the tramway – there was something that was unique to him, because everything he looked at was slightly off – perhaps it was that old people stood slightly off balance to their left or their right. This was not noticed to her, instead it represented the newer style, where the older one was out of the past. She remembered people in the old style tramway, shoved in little cubicles with everything from noodles in pots, to jiazi – which in the West are called dumplings. Every Chinese person would know the difference between wontons, which are slightly different in preparation, and worlds apart in eating. No Chinese, or other Eastern sort, would confuse the two – whatever they might call them. But here in the new style, there was none of that. And if people had just one suit or one day dress, they would be wearing it. That was something new about trains, they were to be dressed up. Realize this was not the way in times past, where the train would just be a normal part of existence. And cheap. As cheap as a textbook by Aubin, reciting the inns and outs of game theory.
If she closed her eyes, she could imagine that she was on a click-clack of an old Tramway, from above 1930 or so. And in her minds eye she could see a vista of people from the lower half of society. There were farmers there, dressed in the what could be called the coveralls of the East, each one of them with a scarf or bamboo conical hat – or douli - which had been in fashion for at least 4000 years. There were also some who had spent money on their cloths, but were traveling “ hard class” because they did not have any money to spend on getting from here to there. Even now she could remember the strange assortment of characters which were there. But what she remembered was how all eyes were drawn to a distinct feature. At first she did not know what it was, but then she she looked down and saw a wetness on her mid-section, and she did not know how it could be there. But slightly there afterwards her mother looked down, seeing that she had had a period. Like the bright red sunset over a small town in mythic Mississippi.
But that was not something that she would understand, having not been told anything about the ends and outs of reproduction, or sex. But every one who was an adult had their own reaction, whether it was bemusement, or shame, or some mixture of the two. Each adult had their own reaction based on some memory that they had. And if that reaction was private, it was not now. A cacophony of reactions on their collective faces was to be read, if only you had the insight. Which the woman who was now older had, but not the child who was standing there and ashamed though she did not know why.
What the man knew was that the woman was imagining some memory that brought her shame, and instead of talking, he reached over and kissed her, as if to show her that at least one person still held her highly. It was not a kiss of love, but of respect. If he were Chinese, a kiss of duty. But she realized that while he had some Chinese sentiments, he was mostly a Westerner. And she did not know what to make of it in that context. But it was still a kiss, and it reverberated down her spine in a way that nothing else had done.
However she wanted not to think on this at this particular moment. Because in the inside, both past and present it meant, to her, questioning why she was there. Had they not in London said goodbye, and truly meant it? What was she doing with him on her own ground, when last they had seen each other, whatever they had meant by attraction was dead. Or at least she thought it was. Obviously it was not dead, but dormant in a way that she did not understand – and at least the same thing was true for him. Of course he could just be faking, but she would have thought she would know this. After all, she was not a girl from the rice fields, and knew nothing. So she looked at his face, and tried to reason what it was he felt for her. But perhaps he did not know either, and was trying to plunge out the steps of it. It might have been just something that he knew he wanted, just as a tryst. Only she thought she would know that it was only lust that he felt. If only she could be sure.
She looked out of the tram, and beheld the bustle of traffic, which was only 10 years in the making. Before it had been bicycles as far as the eye could see, with only a few party apparatchiks and some hazy looking men who had the windows sealed up and darkened. It was better to not ask what they were doing, the men of this second sort. It probably was not legal, and it certainly was profitable in a country where profit was not an example motive. But things were different now, and everyone did make a profit if they knew what would attract the attention of the elite set. She took her brow and set it on the window, thinking of all of the things which had once been true, and were now false.
Just then the man took his arms around her, and with a gesture, made contact in an unusual fashion coiled his whole body around her. It was as if he knew that there was something about her that needed comfort. She rest her whole back into this, and gently purred, like an enormous cat.
She thought about all the times she had been on a train, from deep in the heart of the city; to rural countryside. She imagined in the countryside, where her first inklings that she was different from most other people, began. She realized that most people did not recognize what the other was thinking, or only half knew. Where as, she knew what the other was thinking at least half the time. She then woke and understood that he was different: she did not know what he was thinking, and that was what mystified her, and beguiled her. She wondered if he had a secret as closely guarded as she did, that would be logical, and also perceptive. And then of course she wondered what it was. She searched out his face and tried to imagine what it was.
The night before they had once again shared that colitis that only two people shared who had only a little bit of time, and only for a view days between coming and going. It was intense, passionate, and all to brief. For her this was quite enough, for him it was not enough, but he would not hold any other female but her. Anything else was sacrosanct. He would rather lie asleep thinking about her, then touch any other woman. This was his decision, because there was still something that he needed to talk to her about; but each time it was not yet; not time enough to explain his predicament. But each time there was, the words came out wrong. He was about to say “somehow”, but that was not correct. He knew exactly what the problem was. Inside of him there was a stew of things meant to be let out; and instead they were shuttered closed. He did not know exactly why, but he imagined that either this was not the girl he should be associated with; or that there was some other problem. And he thought he knew what this problem was. But saying it out loud was not the way he was designed.
If only he could just say it, just blurted out, even if the choice of words were not correct. But that would not do. Everything word had to be exactly in the right place. It had to be enunciated clearly. It had to be articulated slowly and precisely. That meant that he would never say it except in the form of a novel. He had tried to write a novel, but had failed. Either on the page. Or in the back drop of his mind. What he could do was write something like classical music. It was not classical music in a form that could be ascribed to Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, or even Bartok. But it had the same sort of lilt to it, that anyone would call it “classical”. Be would capture glints of Copland and Bach. But the entire form was strange and they knew it was not some old forgotten work of times past. Then they would ignore and go back to listening to rock, because that was what they were accustomed to. Thus he wrote classical music and showed it to no one, because he knew that no one would appreciate it. He wrote a few symphonies, and string quartets, and a few pieces for the solo piano. Each time he would imagine that someone would be listening, and word turn to him and ask which composer it was by. And then he would explain. But no one ever did, and yet he composed, and wrote, and about half the time would rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite, until it was perfect. Then he would record things using a keyboard that he had back at home. Such is the life of a strangled artist.
So it was with art as it was with life. In each case he wanted to say something. And in each case that was the starting point, but the ending point was more about itself, then what he wanted to say. Itself took over all expression and made it its own. Thus what he wanted to say, clearly and forcefully, was put aside as he enraptured a larger vision.
He realized that he was looking at the floor, rather than at her. And thus he repositioned himself and truly loved at her face. If he looked at it objectively, the face as a face, was plain and just beautiful enough to notice and move on. But there was a wildness and demureness, both at the same time. And if you noticed this - and most people would not – there was something bewitching about it. He realized, not for the first time, that deep within her face was a different kind of face. It was a face that was suggestive. It was a face which was not there in the mirror, but in the crests and rivulets that were not quite there. It was a face that it was unseen, unless you look deeper into it then mere glancing could allow. And this was the problem.
Because the suggested face was achingly beautiful. But it also was there, just the imagination of it. Could it be that he could live with a face that was not there? At times he could say “yes”, in the way that Joyce would say in an way which was onomatopoeia, as if the words were spoken in the mind not in the mouth. Other times like an Archangel, invariably differential and shy, for example as a character out of Salmon Rushdie – saying no as if a force of saying no could gather all the force of saying no in unison. But neither yes nor no came out, and somehow say may be was just not an option.
So he stared. And in the staring, at her face, she expected him to say something, upon which her life would depend utterly for having said it. Because if his problem was saying something, her problem was she both dreaded and exalted at the same time. To soar in to his eyes, which she locked upon when the mood had struck him to do, or very her face into his arms. But the motion defended on him, and him alone. Remembered he liked Muir, a nature writer, and she resolved to buy him a copy of some of his work.
She wanted to curl up inside of his strong arms, and then to go to sleep. She had enough sex with him, but not enough contact. And it was the contact that she most desired. The contact with another member of that same species, but drifting a different path than she did. She looked in to his eyes and wanted permission to accept the warmness from his face. But she did not know whether or not this was given. Most people she could read instantaneously, but he was a mystery, with a faint have smile which did not reveal one-way or the other. She could not know whether or not she had permission to curl up in a ball, and nestle in to place. But she tried to understand if there was some meaning that she missed. Was the in the slight grin, was it in the eyes, was it in the curl of locks that he had? She streamed her fingers through his hair, which had a certain waiving about it which did not happen very often among her own kind. For just a moment she played like a kitten, engorged with the certain flow that it had. She played with it as if it were the only thing that fascinated her, for getting everything, just to play. But then she stared deeply in to his eyes, and formed a look which she hoped was a sort of mourning.
But he did not respond at all, though she again looked for an answer. She bore down upon his eyes like an eagle who has caught a hare in her grasp, every moment tightening until at last the rabbit sees only the terror of his face reflected in her eyes. And for a moment that look; of the rabbits face reflected in the eagles eyes is all that the rabbit knows, and then he is caught and for the last few minutes of his life; he struggles, he wheezes out his last gasp of air, and lives out the last second of his life in terror. Normally when she did this to someone, the look on the individuals face was quite appealing to her. It was all freeing, and delicious in its terror. She virtually lived for this, and many people had described this eagle's look as one of her great strengths in negotiating. Indeed it could almost be said that she was already being known for this. It was all unsettling and something that once a person had felt it, they would go great lengths to avoid it in future. But he never got the eagle's eye, nor had ever felt it. Which is perhaps one reason why he called her “sparrow”. It was her both a defeat in combat, and a delicate reminder how one person saw her quite differently from everyone else. She looked at his face, and nuzzled down, and he responded by taking her entire body and whispered sweet nothings. The kind of thing that only when one hears it does one know that one is truly loved. It was like meeting Turing, and they both smiled.
The entire intensity of putting her face down, then put her head down on his chest, yielding both and inner warmness and outer sulk. She had tried for many minutes to get an answer, and had not gotten one. She was torn between the two opposite reflections, one that was from deep inside of her as a little girl, the other of which grew as a tantrum until it was a storm within their.
And then she spoke: “You do know where were going, yes?”
“No, I do not know where we are going.” And then with a mock gentleness said: “Will you tell me?”
At least this meant for an instant that he was guessing what she felt. And then she explained: “Were going up to Suzhou.” Then she spelled out the name in characters and in a fine script which was in English, both the forms were exquisite in their detail. “From their we will take a boat and explore the islands, which, while crowded with people, are serene in their stillness. We will get off at the train station in the north of the city, and then look around at the gardens, there are three that are particularly fine. Then we can head off to a friend of mine who will take us to Taihu Lake. I promise it will be something marvelous. The details may change, but that is the essence of the plan.”
He just nodded. Then she realized she had said everything that she wanted to say, and she was then looking for a response from him. She had wanted him to guess what was on her mind, but then she kept talking until there was nothing left for him to guess. Which was not her plan, of course. But there was a questioning in his face until she had spilled out everything. It was not what she intended to do, and with almost anyone else, she would not have done it. But with him it was different, though she did not know how. Perhaps it was the way he looked at her, almost, but not quite, promising that he would say something, though he never quite did. With anyone else it would be an annoyance, a burbling question which could not be answered except by walking away. But with him, it was a challenge to get him to open up to her mind.
It allured her, rather than annoyed her.
For his part, he would be locked just underneath responding, and answering everything on her mind. But not quite yet. Was not his way to respond to the little eddies and flows that came to in conversation, but instead all the main themes of the conversation, even if he would tangentially tack at them in practice. This was usually is way of doing things; but she would scatter her attention someone. She was not inclined to stay on a course, nor was she going to shift things by just saying that she wanted to introduce a new top. Both of these routes were neither in substance nor in theory the way she did things, she was far more subtle than that. Instead there was a reason for everything, and eventually everything got back to her main topic – though it might seem incredibly roundabout. That is why he saw with other people a slow patient grinding down of there will to fight. That is why he responded not by words but by expressions that touched her in innumerable ways which she could not describe; the knew that when she wanted to drive the conversation, he would respond not by saying anything, but by adopting an affect that would call in to question why she was doing this. Because she knew she was doing something, and when caught their was a shift in her face. This is why he knew that there was something deep inside of her, as there was inside of him. But now they were drained of this tête-à-tête.
So they looked out the window, and saw fields become city streets almost in and instant. This was not like America where things went from wild fields to cultivated suburbs to city streets in a smooth transition. Instead it went from city streets to cultivated fields to city streets with a jolt. One moment you were in wild fields, and the next moment in cityscapes, with only the reason guided by the landscape. And soon you understood this pattern.
And so everyone on the train new that the cityscape would be upon them, because it was different. The area of Shanghai was played out, and a poorer Suzhou was coming to the fore. As noted, there was a transition that could not be described, only noted. It was nothing you could put your finger on, it but it was, nonetheless, there. Perhaps it was the way rice paddies were organized, where has in Shanghai they were dropped almost randomly. Perhaps the channels were to straight, where as in Shanghai there was a flow between land and water and air which made a pattern that was not man-made. Perhaps it was that Shanghai was between man and nature, where as Suzhou was entirely man on one side, and nature on the other side. With nary twain shall meet. They spoke dialects of Wu, though of different kinds. In the language of the area, there is an expression about the local speech: “the tender Language of Wu.” or perhaps “speech” is better – one can get an argument started as to which of these is meant - many of the tendencies of Putonghua are held in abeyance, leading to something resembling the old speech of Chinese, though often more in substance then in fact.
“They are speaking in the native tongue, assuming that I only speak Mandarin, and you do not speak any Chinese at all. They assume that they will not be heard.” She neither grinned or made any motion that she recognized their speech. But while it was not her native tongue, she could navigate through its eccentricities and complexities, as Brayer Rabbit come to life as a cartoon from Disney.
Under his breath: “But you do speak it, don't you?” She answered with a lilting tune of voice that said “Yes.” It was doubtful that anyone else knew what she was speaking of, they heard yes, but not of what it spoke of. It was as if she were translating James Baldwin in to the classical tongue of Dmitri Shostakovich, instead of the close yet far away tongue of Cole Porter. Baldwin showing that he can rise to the stentorian verse that is his master, where as Shostakovich wants to show that he can be as dirty as his subordinate.
Outside the window very suddenly, the cityscape appeared out of the trees. No one was surprised, because there was an invisible line which was drawn – one moment they were in the rural countryside, the next day were in the edges of the city. Though foreigners would have been shocked. But no foreigners, with the exception of himself, were there at all.