Victoria Giang – “My Saint Sebastian”

Although Victoria Giang has been a farmer, director, receptionist, teacher, vagabond, antiques dealer, and painter/plasterer, she has always been and will always remain a dilettante novelist.


My Saint Sebastian

He sat across from me in the magazine library, a cool, subterranean concrete room which functioned as a sort of waiting room for the resumption of productive or social life. Eyelashes fluttered and our gaze connected a couple of times with a spark that failed to ignite. Perhaps it was due to the deafening tropical rain outside or the sterile, museum-like environment which discouraged speech. A war of attrition was silently declared between us, each settling into our padded faux leather chairs. When we would stand to return our magazines and select a new one, we would each walk deliberately close to the other, brush past each other’s chair, and when one of us was absorbed in reading, that was when the other could observe his expression of concentration, the face in repose, a gentle smile of amusement lifting the corners of the lips.

There was no doubt that he was the perfect image of the Greek expression “ephebe,” a beautiful male youth, but the addition of three grey hairs to the top of his head made him irresistible, on the assumption that he would be feeling a tug of desperation at this visible sign that he was nearing the apex of his youth. His oval face framed harmonious features: soft, full lips, a nose with a gently rolling arch like the vague outline of an inviting hill, doe-like brown eyes shaded by lashes that fell thick as a curtain of water over a hidden cave, mysterious and romantic, and skin as clear and luminous as a newly pressed piece of gold foil. Would such a perfectly formed man want anything to do with the company of a woman?

I waited him out, reading volume after volume of Latvian photography magazines until the crucial moment came to depart so that I could arrive at my party on time, unfashionably early as always since I never felt glamorous enough to call attention to myself by arriving late, after fashioning a story of something better to do. So I stood up and took my leave too quickly, without looking back (embarrassed to catch the knowing glance of the librarian), but I paused at the top of the stairs to watch the rain and briefly envisioned my pursuant hot on my heels and reaching the top of the stairs to stand beside me, whereby I would look up from under my umbrella charmingly at him, and our acquaintanceship could trace its beginning to this very moment, but understandably, no such thing happened.

Walking to the party, I stopped by a 711 to buy a bottle of wine, an expensive import from Australia of dubious quality, but with a twist top. An acrid taste coated my mouth in anticipation of the evening ahead. I gazed at the wall of cigarettes, scanning the romantic and exotic names: Boheme, Gentle, Mevius, Seven Stars. My throat burned as I considered the social merits of the pernicious activity that had won me the very friend whose party I was to attend that night. Without cigarettes, I wouldn’t have found the opportunity to approach a strange woman, and my poor life would suffer more in comparison with the distant specter of disease that I hoped miraculously to sidestep.

I imagined my friend’s surprise if I were to appear at the party by the side of my Apollonian beauty. “Oh? And who’s this?” Her eyes would widen.

“Just a stranger who became my friend, same as you,” I would tell her, and my eyes would go glossy as I watched him socialize among my interesting, sophisticated friends, and he would feel delighted at having met me, the cord that tugged him to warmer shores, and how we would tumble onto a bed as inviting as a pink sand beach when I brought him home with me, a whole life condensed into just one night.

Instead, I arrived alone, and opened the door to the sound a cork popping, that unmistakably joyful sound, so I quickly forgot my love, lost to the depths. Joy’s boyfriend led me to the terrace, slinking along like a puppy dog in the garb of a 1920’s Chicano garment worker: wide pinstripe trousers and clinging white t-shirt, perpetually turning back to me with his sly grin, like a doomed Orpheus with skin as clear and white as Dehua porcelain, eyes widened by the thick, circular frames of his glasses, making his expression that of a curious animal.

We drank on the terrace without making toasts as rain sprinkled my back. Joy’s photography exhibition was the primary topic among us.

“The curator should work alongside the artists to develop the concept of the exhibition. It’s an understated role which requires breadth of theoretical knowledge, which is more important than ever in contemporary art,” one woman held forth passionately.

“He used government funding to pay street walkers by the hour, and the compositions he utilized in his photography were quite simple, like that of an advertisement, with text along the bottom which would read something like ‘John, $30.’ In the series, the concept was more valuable than the image. These were men and women who turned tricks on Hollywood Boulevard, failing to make it as actors. To be presented as an image was all they asked.” Someone discussed a photographer’s recent work.

“The exhibition concerns the concept of physical space as it applies to the queer as people, ah, and here’s one of my models now.” Joy turned with obvious pleasure to introduce the new arrival, and who could it be but my Apollo?

“Congratulations,” she told him, and then turning to me. “My country finally says it’s legal for him to marry.” It was the day of a ruling dually historic: both for declaring equal rights and asserting the island’s ability to self govern, a casual yet monumental day, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit possessive over all men, so I was somewhat disappointed by the news’ relevance to him, though intrigued to find him within my ever turning social circle.

“Congratulations, old friend,” I addressed him intimately, and he flashed me an enchantingly intimate smile.

“It’s nice to see you here. Against all expectation.” His voice was clear and confident, and he seated himself at an angle beside me. I poured him a drink, a fizzy lychee flavored wine cooler.

“You’re the one from the exhibition, then? The photos were quite brilliant,” a girl with glittery eyelids complimented him. A few others agreed and proffered their own congratulations. We spent much of the evening between four eyes only, both former students of literature living it out in practical fields – he in banking and me in business. The way his eyes smiled at me, half moons gently turning, it was hard to believe he was a man not for me. His charm was so potent that I could only escape by turning my back on it and making conversation with the two European girls. Still, the warmth of his presence burned the back of my neck.

He departed early, pleading an early day at work, and soon after, promising to view the exhibition, I left as well.

I rode the train with one of the more confident and well-spoken art students from the party and coaxed out her fears for an insecure future, which was followed by my own guilt at having drawn out the revelation before laying a sort of curse by describing my own unfocused post-university behavior. There was no guarantee she didn’t have the vicious, self-serving nature needed to gain funding and moderate success, but her idealism and confident, youthful bluster had created this need in me to tear down the screen and view the bare pedestal for these hopes and dreams. It was a cruel impulse, I realized after following it, a little like lifting up her skirt in public, and I regretted that I had performed this intimate gesture out of boredom rather than love. Now I felt responsible to her.

I came home to my friend’s apartment and cat, ignoring the cat to pass out on her bed. I felt quite guilty as I thought of her cat as well, young and energetic and stuffed in this tiny room, frustrated as a young girl sequestered in a convent. In her black and white coat, she looked a bit like a nun to me.

In the morning, it rained, so I got up only to return to bed a couple hours later. I felt disoriented as I went out to buy breakfast, like I wasn’t supposed to exist and that everyone avoided me as if I were a ghost, catching a glimpse, staring in disbelief before averting their eyes in fear. I lacked the cheeriness to face them with a smile, so I pretended they didn’t exist as well, that I walked among them as a ghost from another plane.

Later, I went out to the photography exhibition. It was held in the basement of the university’s old library, most of which was eerily unlit except by occasional flashes of lightning. The basement space had the aspect of a dungeon; the photos were held on empty shelves, with the partitions decorated with yarn pulled so taut that I also felt the tension, as if the trap door would close, and I would be caught in this basement, between worlds. The idea of queerness was represented mostly as being openly sexual, with scenes of exhibitionism and bondage alongside funereal imagery of lilies and white clothed maidens. This place felt like both a dungeon and a tomb, and the feeling wasn’t oppressive more than it was sadistic.

The images were appealing, but the one that arrested was that of my Apollo, in the typical, confident pose of an ephebe: nude, smirking, leaning against a bathroom sink in a white tiled room. The intimacy he had shown me, he had lavished on the photographer as well in this picture, so that now we could all possess him equally. His sexuality struck me as an expression of his desire to be adored more than to desire another, and this struck me as natural, to adore him.

However, the idea that all the others at the party had seen his beauty in full display and that even more strangers, even those I could see now milling around other pictures at the exhibition, would continue to see it filled me with dread. I was upset to think of others possessing him the same as me, not that they could see his flesh exposed, but that they could feel his obvious charm, fall under the spell of his obvious attraction. Or worse, if they didn’t like him, if they couldn’t feel his beauty as powerfully as I did, if they reduced it to inconsequential phrases. I wanted all of him for myself alone.

Old men love war and blood sports. I understood the reason behind this now. Sending a beautiful young man to die was the only way to ensure that no others could have him, that you would be the final one.

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Fiction, Uncategorized

Lynette Tan – “Jellyfish Pirates”

On planet earth Lynette Tan Yuen Ling is an award-winning lecturer and Associate Director of Student Life at the National University of Singapore, where she teaches Film Studies, academic writing as well as Singapore Literature. She is also the author of the ‘Pittodrie Pirates’ series of books for children, and one of 10 poets featured in the Haiku anthology ‘Equatorial Calm’. In an alternate universe Lynette is First Mate in dNd, which currently holds the international and all time guild PR record under the leadership of the intrepid Captain Sharky.

Jellyfish Pirates


She didn’t think that it could but the sinking feeling in her stomach had gotten even worse. They were in mid-rumble and the other pirates were not only way better than her, her own troops appeared to be struck with some wasting disease and were melting on the battlefield like they were made of jello. They reminded her of the jellyfish that she and her cousins had brought back to Ah Kong’s house at Pasir Ris, meeting a fate much worse than being stranded on the beach where they had been picked up. Nefarious imps that they were the children (she included of course) had gingerly placed the unfortunate creatures on the cement steps under the blazing sun, and watched them liquefy before their wicked eyes. She groaned inwardly as her last recruit met his demise and the foul 6 letter word blazed across the screen.


Her husband looked over at her, a bemused expression on his face.

‘What’s wrong?’

They were sitting in bed, in that wonderful hour just before sleep where the world stopped spinning and nothing else mattered but just the two of them sharing one space, one life, one destiny. Well usually anyway.

‘Just got defeated in battle.’ I could hear the disgust in the brittle tones of my voice.

‘Look at this’ he pointed to his iPad. ‘I’m really worried about Trump and that crazy North Korean president… we’re not far from another world war.’

She put her phone down and snuggled next to him, laying her head on his warm chest. Two belligerent men stared at her. She should be frightened by what she saw, their eyes like ice chips and the grim lines of their mouth shouted to the world that they were more than. More than what you would expect, more than what you could handle, more than it would take for there to be peace, more than the world could contain and definitely more than ready to send some nukes out there and obliterate life as we know it. But what could she do about it anyway? The world was broken, a thing of beauty when you were looking from far far away, like in 2001 a Space Odyssey, all blue and green and white and perfectly round, but when you got closer the stench suddenly hits you — decaying flesh and rotten blood, vultures preying on the weak, destruction and chaos for no other reason than man’s inhumanity to man. It was too depressing.

‘We’ll just plan on doing what you said’ she let her voice be sweet and planted a kiss on his grizzled cheek. He nodded. The grand plan was to buy some property in New Zealand, far far away from everyone and everything, Lord of the Rings country. Farm the land and find a way to recreate Eden, then when the apocalypse came and hopefully there were no zombies, they would be Adam and Eve, or maybe Mr. and Mrs. Noah, and there would be a new earth all clean and shiny, just green and blue and white and perfect.


Her island was being attacked again — the enemy troops were on the rampage and her villagers were scurrying into the buildings to hide as if they actually had a hope of staying alive. The buildings were actually the worst places to go to in these attacks, if she were on that island she would dive into the surrounding sea and float on her back, threading the water until the carnage was past. She wanted to shout to her little minions ‘Put on your swimmers you fools! All the buildings are going to collapse on your heads, run into the sea! Run like the dickens!’. Perhaps if the game developers had deigned to draw some ears on her villagers it would have helped, as it was however, her poor deaf pirates ran to certain death as fast as their little legs could take them.

-22! That was brutal. A drop in rank after an attack was the norm, but sometimes the extent of that drop still caused a double take. A victory led to an edging upwards of sometimes +2, or if you were lucky, a +10 in rank, but these defeats … it was one step forward and two steps back much of the time.

The day her mother died had been like that — life before was golden, so bright that she couldn’t bear to look back it hurt too much. It was a steady building up of positives, every smile, the kind words, the looks that said ‘I’m so proud of you’ the holidays and the presents that said ‘I can’t say I love you but I’m showing you’. And then the plunge on that black day. It was like the game, but more than. -1000 points after all the +1 and +10’s over the years until her rank was in deficit. The hollowness was the worst of it, like someone had burrowed in through your heart and proceeded to eat up all your insides, starting with your organs, the soft fleshy tissues, moving onto your muscles and gristly tendons then finally crunching on your bones until you were a walking balloon. That was the unbearable lightness of being, when you were a balloon being tugged along by the hand of fate, wishing you could pop and put an end to your miserable existence but being dragged along relentlessly. Then as if by some miracle (some have called it time) your insides start to re-grow. First the stomach and you begin to feel hungry again. Then your lungs, you start to take deep breaths and notice that the air isn’t quite as stale as it used to be. Then (you never thought this would be possible), your heart. You’re still a mushy walking creature without your bones but pumping at your centre is your heart and it’s urging your backbone to reform. And it does, vertebrae by vertebrae until you’ve got your spine back and you can pull at the string in the hand of fate. There’s some reluctance but fate knows it’s fated and lets go.


He was sleeping now. His reading glasses still on his nose, and his mouth open. His features are eerie in the light of his iPad but they are familiar to her. She takes his glasses off and puts them on his bedside table. He’s got quite a firm grip on his iPad but she manages to ease it gently out of his hand and she places that next to his glasses.

‘Wha? I was just asleep there! You do this every night, you have to stop waking me up!’ He grumbles and turns over, burrowing deeper under the covers.

She grins at their little routine, and leans into his neck to get one last whiff of his scent.

A message blinks on her phone, ‘pirate recruitment complete’. Logging on to her game again she sees that her village has regenerated, the buildings pristine as the first day they were made, and it’s time to get back in the rumble.

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Tim Tomlinson – “Look Closer”

Tim Tomlinson was born in Brooklyn, and raised on Long Island, where he was educated by jukeboxes and juvenile delinquents. He quit high school in 1971 and began a life of purposeless wandering that led to purpose. He’s lived in Boston, Miami, New Orleans, London, Florence, Shanghai, Manila, Andros Island in the Bahamas, and Cha-am, Thailand. Currently, he lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Deedle. He is a co-founder of New York Writers Workshop, and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. He is the author of the chapbook Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse, the poetry collection Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire, and the forthcoming collection of short fiction, This Is Not Happening to You (due late summer, 2017). He is a Professor of Writing at New York University’s Global Liberal Studies Program. He’s an avid scuba diver with just under 300 logged dives, and a 200-hr Yoga Alliance certified yoga instructor.


Look Closer


“I know you all know what a dick is,” Rosie said to the sixth-grade girls. “Well, here’s mine.”

From the open zipper in his jeans, Rosie fished his little eraser of a penis.

Some of the girls gasped and covered their mouths with their hands. Some laughed. Some pretended to look away, but few actually could.

They were in the woods just off the recess field, their perimeter guarded by fourth and fifth grade boys.

Rosie said, “You can look closer if you want.”

Kathy Christmas pulled the hair from her face and leaned closer. Maria Bella and Debbie Fancy followed.

Debbie said, “Is it . . . is it getting bigger?”

The soft little pink thing had lengthened, the wrinkles in its shaft smoothed and hardened.

“Probably,” Rosie said. “It sometimes does that.”

Kneeling now, looking more closely, Kathy Christmas said, “Weird.”

Rosie said, “It’s okay to touch it.”

“I’m not touching that,” Kathy said, laughing.

Maria Bella knelt alongside her. “I will,” she said.

She placed the tip of her index finger on the shaft and the penis hardened further.

“Why is it doing that?” Maria asked.

Rosie said he didn’t know.

Maria said, “It’s so smooth.”

Debby Fancy leaned forward. She put her finger on, too, right at the tip.

“Ewww,” she said, “it’s all gooey.” But she didn’t take her finger away.

Then Billy Kanes, a fourth grader, came racing through the scrub.

“Morawski,” he shouted once, and vanished up the path.

Violently, the girls on the periphery scattered into the woods. They disappeared quickly up the paths through the low scrub. Before they could be identified, they would all find hidden exits onto the playing field. But Kathy and Maria were slow getting up from where they knelt. Soil stuck to the knees they exposed between mini-skirts and the tops of white go-go boots. And Rosie was having trouble pressing his erection back into his jeans.

Then Mrs. Morawski appeared.

“Do not a single one of you move,” she said.


Rosie was a new kid. His mother married Chris Hulse’s father, and they arrived in town from Nassau County some place close to the city. They lived at the edge of a sod field stadiums wide. You could see their house all the way from 25A. It looked like a red Monopoly hotel at the corner of a ping-pong table.

Rumors preceded Rosie’s appearance in school. He’d been left back at least once—he should have been in the seventh grade, maybe even eighth. There may have been some trouble in his last school, something to do with Rosie in the shower after gym class. Chris Hulse told his friends he wouldn’t sleep in the same room as Rosie, but he didn’t fully explain why. He moved into the basement where he slept on the couch, and he acted like he preferred that, but there was more to the story. No one, not even Rosie when he arrived, could explain why Rosie was called Rosie. His real name was John Scratchley. One thing Chris said: “My father better not adopt him. I don’t want the same last name as that fat freak.”

Rosie wasn’t really fat, he was chubby. He wore size 32” jeans, and his freckled face was puffy at the cheeks and under the chin. His hair was very short, a crew cut, the kind boys got when they got into trouble, but you could see that it was blond.


In the office, Kathy and Maria and Rosie stood, hands folded, in front of Principal Siegel’s desk. Principal Siegel was new, too, but not as new as Rosie. He was supposed to be strict, but all he did now was look from Kathy’s face to Maria’s to Rosie’s and back again. He drummed the fingers of one hand on his desk and continued to watch their faces. You could hear a watch tick, and sounds from the hall filtered in like echoes in a tunnel.

Finally, Kathy said, “Are we gonna just, like, stand here?”

Rosie snorted, and Maria bit hard on her lower lip.

“I mean,” Kathy said, “we’re missing I think social studies or some crap.”

The three of them, then, led by Rosie, burst out laughing. They laughed against their efforts to hold in the laughter. Tears leaked from their eyes onto the floor of Principal Siegel’s office where they splotched and darkened the gray and white tiles. They tried to suck back their guffaws, they tried to straighten from their waists, but they couldn’t. It seemed almost like the harder they tried to stop, the more the laughter poured forth. But slowly, painfully, they gulped it back, they swallowed it down, until they mastered it and they all three stared at the floor and avoided each other’s moist reddened eyes.

Principal Siegel continued drumming his fingers, for a minute, another minute, an eternity.

Kathy said, “Dude,” and their laughter exploded again.

Rosie said, “I’m gonna piss my fucking pants,” and they laughed harder and harder, their stomachs twisting into knots, and they pleaded with each other to stop, but they couldn’t, again, for a very long time.

When they looked up this time, Principal Siegel was reaching for the phone.


Maria Bella’s mother arrived second.

“He just showed it to us, Mama,” Maria said, ducking blows. “How were we supposed to know?”

To Rosie’s mother, Mrs. Bella said, “I’m gonna have that freak of yours locked up, you hear me?”

Mrs. Hulse stood behind Rosie holding his shoulders, sniffling back tears.

“We’re both sorry,” she told Mrs. Bella.

Mrs. Bella pushed Maria out the door. “Sorry my ass,” she said over her shoulder. “You can tell it to the judge.”

Kathy Christmas’s mother wasn’t home. Kathy was sent to spend the rest of the day in the nurse’s office.

“What were you thinking,” Nurse Meadows asked her.

“I dunno,” Kathy said. “Just how funny and little it looked.”

Nurse Meadows was taken aback. She fixed the glasses hanging round her neck onto the bridge of her nose.

“Funny and little,” she repeated. “Young lady, do you have any idea what you have done?”

“Yeah,” Kathy said, “I, like, looked at a dick. What’s the big deal?”

Nurse Bellows sent Kathy back to Principal Siegel’s office, but on the way she ducked into the unfinished wing of the new school. She entered an empty classroom whose unlocked doors opened onto a staircase to the side drive. She flashed across the drive faster than a squirrel, and back home she ignored the ringing telephone and watched cartoons.

When she got bored, she went outside and walked through the woods to Maria Bella’s house on John Street. She tapped at Maria’s window.

“My mother’s gonna kill me,” Maria said, pulling her friend over the sill.

“Fuck your mother,” Kathy said.

Kathy was something of a leader. Of all the girls, she developed noticeable breasts first, early in the fifth grade. By early sixth, which she was in now, she’d hung out with seventh and eighth grade boys, and she’d been felt up seven times. Maria had been felt up once. Debby Fancy wanted to be, but Kathy told her she needed to wait until there was something to feel.

“What did it feel like,” Kathy asked, “when you, like, touched it.”

“I don’t know,” Maria said, “kind of soft and smooth like velour.”

Kathy said, “Really?”

“Even when it got hard,” Maria said.

Kathy said, “Wow.”

Maria said, “I know.”

“But it didn’t feel gooey? Debby said it was gooey.”

“It didn’t feel gooey to me.”

Kathy said, “You think we should call her?”

“I can’t call anyone,” Maria said. “My mother would kill me.”

“How would she know.”

“That bitch knows everything.”

“You should come to my house,” Kathy said. “My mother lets us alone.”

Maria said, “Yeah, well my mother loves me.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just she loves me, that’s all.”

“And what, my mother doesn’t?”

From another part of the house, Maria’s mother shouted.

“What’s all that noise in there?”

Maria said, “You better get out of here.”

Kathy said, “You’re such a wuss.”

Maria said, “Okay, I’m a wuss. But I know more than you.”

Kathy took the other woods, the woods that led away from home. She felt unsettled. She felt something had changed. She was the leader, the first one with a bra, the first one with a boyfriend, the first one French kissed, the first one felt up. It was like a shelf full of trophies. Then, all of a sudden, one shitty recess, and she’s the one asking questions. What the hell did Debby mean, all gooey?


Rosie stood in front of the mirror looking at the way his little dick must have looked when he pulled it out. He thought about how it had lengthened and how good that felt, like something really good was about to happen. Had to happen. And he thought about how much fun it was in Principal Siegel’s office, to laugh right in his face. No matter how much trouble he was in, it was worth it finally to laugh right in one of their faces.

He was in a lot of trouble, he knew that. He didn’t know exactly how much, but the phone had been ringing nearly non-stop since the school buses dropped the kids back home. He could hear his mother crying, sighing, apologizing. And once his step-brother came in, without knocking, and said, “Dad’s gonna send you to a home.”

This is my home,” Rosie told him.

His brother said, “This is our home, you fat freak,” and he slammed the door.

Rosie liked Chris. He was a fast runner, good at math, but he was so uptight.

In the mirror, he could see the distant traffic rolling on 25A. It was almost thirty minutes to the nearest town, a town with a luncheonette and a pharmacy and a candy store. He felt like he was living nowhere, at the edge of a huge lawn that didn’t even have houses.

The school buses were just heading back out to pick up the late kids, the kids who stayed after for sports or clubs. Rosie had wanted to join a club. He thought he could do cross-country, but his step-brother told him they don’t accept fat freaks. Then he thought he could do quilting, but Mrs. Morawski told him that was only for girls.

Something in the mirror caught his eye. He went to the window, and there . . . halfway across the sod field . . . was a figure . . . a girl . . . in a skirt . . . a mini-skirt . . . and white go-go boots . . . Kathy . . . Kathy Christmas. And she was coming toward his house. She was coming closer. And closer. So close she saw him. She saw him and waved. She indicated with her hands that he should lift up his window.

He looked down. He was still unzipped.

He wondered if he should raise his zipper. He guessed Kathy could tell him.

He raised the window.






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Zhen – Delays

“All warfare is based on deception.” (Sun Tzu, Chpt 1, 18)


I have been in this bar so many times, it’s like reading the same book again and again. The pages are grubby and hold no surprises. I’m here alone tonight, hoping beer will wash my irritation with Sun.

My head feels like it’s being split with each bass thud, makes it hard to think. DJ’s all sound the same don’t they? Just different posters. Stupid names; DJ Missile, DJ Jam.

Each drink purchase is studied, timed. I switch to cognac from the cheap beer. I work out each glass of cognac costs me four point one hours of my meagre wages. This is not to be taken lightly. But I don’t care anymore. It relaxes me, softens the sound of jackhammers in my head. The bartender pours a small stain of four hours labour into my glass, I wince. Here’s to my family-friendly fiance who has been so busy at work I’ve been stuck at my parents for two long extra days. He thinks his meetings with his boss are more important than moving me into our flat.

I swig another small mouthful of cognac and message my friend Mei to see how she is. But there is no reply.

Some cheap looking girl moves in front of me and eyes a foreigner. She must think I’m competition, but I don’t have the required layers of makeup. I wear jeans, not a short skirt. And I don’t like foreign men, not like that. The foreigner smiles at her, doesn’t see me. His eyes move down her legs to her high heels. We are playthings to them. He is like a child.

The cheap girl, in heels that are more like school made stilts, stumbles onto my toes causing a sharp stab of pain. Worse, I see in a quick machine gun fire of strobe that she’s stained the toes of my favourite shoes. I try to push her away but end up stumbling myself. Too much cognac and out manoeuvred, I fall off my stool and onto my feet, but kick out at her as I do. Mud that always seems to be caked to the bottom of my shoes stains her clothes, makes me smile. My handbag strikes the foreigner in the side. He doesn’t notice though, he is too busy trying to scoop up the heeled painted doll falling at his feet. He looks like a baby happy with a cheap breakable toy. You get what you pay for, right?

I feel more lost than when I arrived. Drink has clouded me. I feel like I’m sinking inside. More music, too loud. I have to get out so I head toward the flood of light spilling from the exit. There are lots of people between me and the coat rack. I’m going through my pockets looking for the tag. Hair is in my eyes, sticky with sweat. People behind wait for me, watching.

A foreigner stumbles ahead of the queue, with a small group around him. I can’t see his face clearly. He has sandy coloured hair that was once styled in some sort of business cut, but it’s now slightly overgrown. I see a flash of dark eyes. His clothes look cheap, but I notice an expensive pair of shoes, one of the brands Mei goes on about. He looks bored, numb. He’s too drunk or too clueless to see a system and pushes ahead of me.

I must have drunk too much, I am never so direct with strangers, “Wait, line up. They are getting my coat.” I feel blood rush to my cheeks as I say this, want to rewind that last moment and keep my mouth shut.

He mutters, “Doesn’t even seem to be a line, don’t know how you can tell.”

I push hair out of my face, fold my arms, “Foreigners often miss the obvious.”

He rocks back on his heels now, steadies himself on the counter. I see him examine my face. The group with him has drifted off toward the door. He doesn’t seem to care, says to me, “I’ve fucked up. I…” He looks down at his shoes, takes one hand out to steady himself against the wall near him. He splutters, “I didn’t mean it quite like that…” The words run together like ink. I wince at the toxic smell of what he has drunk, I can smell it from where I am.

I pull back a little, “I don’t talk with drunks.” I regret starting this, look over his shoulder hoping someone will come back with my coat. I fold my arms and stand there, hoping I can escape quickly. My bravery is evaporating.

He grunts, points his finger at me, trying to end the tense silence between us, “You know… I’ve seen no system in this city so far… crazy drivers, brave cyclists…”

He stops pointing when he realises I won’t respond. People are looking, I just want to go home now. He turns away from me, sighs, runs his hands through his hair, says, “Sorry.” I glance at him, he looks lost. I feel a flicker of pity for him.

I mutter, “You’ll feel better tomorrow.” He doesn’t reply.

Someone comes with my coat and I take it off her, anxious to flee. In my haste I stumble, and he lurches to help me, grabs my arm. I jump away and move toward the door. I feel the air from the outside smother the sound from the club behind me. It shrinks it to monotone.

He follows me outside. I stumble to the head of a taxi queue and try to muscle my way into a taxi to get away from him. I hear him from behind me, “There’s a system, a line…” His interruption has prevented me from being pushed by three women I have offended as I take their place in the taxi queue. He looks happy seeing this revenge and leads me away before they vent their rage at me.

He says, “I’d buy you a drink, to say sorry, but I don’t have any money left.”

He must be lying, “How can a foreigner not have money?” I grunt.

He smiles, looks at my shoes, “Well, not all of us have money to burn.”

I should walk away, but I don’t, I stand on the edge of the street not in a line for a taxi and not walking away. I can’t explain why I don’t want to move or why half of me stops the other half from moving, a stalemate. I say, “Well, you must have something, you couldn’t have swum here from your country.”

I hope he will walk away, but he chuckles. I see a flash of those eyes and I look down at the pavement, and he says, “My company paid for the ticket and set me up, so… no great swimming skills.” He tries to say something else but the wind picks up and we both recoil as the cold hits us.

We shuffle back away from the road toward the door where there is some shelter. I notice, with enough light now from the light in the doorway, that he is unshaven. “You don’t need to buy me a drink, I’m used to foreigners.”

He raises his eyebrows, “Used to arrogance?”

I nod, “Yes.” My cheeks flush and I turn away from him, my arms folded and pressed against my breasts to hold the warmth in.

He says, “Funny, I was just thinking you were arrogant.” I grit my teeth, want to yell at him but I am incapable of even grasping at an English word to respond.

He finds a business card and holds it in one hand in front of me, “Well, I should give this to you. They say that’s the right thing to do here.” I feel my eyebrows arch. Such thick skin; ‘the nerve’, as they say in foreign movies. It says, ‘Golden Dragon Property’ above his name, Lindon. He works for them.

I snatch it quickly, my upbringing forbids me from leaving it in his hands. I pull too hard and he topples forward, almost falls to the street. I leave, turn my back on him, heading for the subway as rain starts to fall. I only get a few metres form him and he yells, “What’s your name?”

I wonder why he cares. I stop and turn around. Rain starts to prick my face with icy water and I breath hard, “Zhen Yi.” The rain gets heavier and I rush away.

I look back as the subway entrance looms up in front of me and see he is following me. I notice, in the rain that’s fanning out on the road, the mud from his shoes is leaving a trail behind him. He looks like a child, a large clumsy child. I being to laugh, a real laugh. I’m more used to giving ‘show faces’ and deceitful body language. That is my life. Smile to the right people, strategic-emotional-display. But this laugh is real. I put his card into a pocket, careful to remember where I put it, and disappear into the subway.

Later on the platform I see him squinting in the glare of fluorescent light. We don’t talk. He has retreated into himself anyway, is far away. I turn to go to my side of the platform and I am happy a train glides in right away. I don’t look at him again, I just turn and disappear into the carriage.

My phone begins screeching. It’s Sun, I see his name on the screen and I’m relieved to hear from him. I want to hear his voice after everything that’s gone on tonight. The night has flushed out the frustration. Was I bitch to him? Should I be a more supportive fiancé? There are ads for bras opposite me, Sun sounds perfect, as usual. His voice deep and calm. He apologises for being out so late again. He has signed a big new contract. Says this one will “change everything” but I’ve heard this before.

I say, “I’m not feeling well baby. I need to be in our own place. My parents are driving me crazy…” I listen to his voice, my toe aches from the club. The foreigner’s smile is everywhere I look in the subway. It’s the only thing I can see and I feel terrible for this small emotional betrayal of Sun. I don’t even know why I would think about that stupid arrogant man.

The train gathers speed as we head away from the station, Sun is saying, “…and you should make sure you keep warm, it’s starting to rain they say, and I hope you were careful with-” but as the train disappears into a tunnel we lose our signal. His voice disappears mid-sentence and my shoulders go slack. I sink back against the door. I look forward to being surrounded by him, smelling his skin. But I won’t see him again tonight, and I will be with my parents.

When I get off at my stop, rain has started to descend in heavy sheets. At home I clear my pockets. All the paper has formed a soft mess of running ink and pulp. There is no number left. I’m relieved about this, almost happy.

Why would I want some arrogant foreign man’s phone number anyway?


Lindon – Foam realities

Knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men.”
(Sun Zi, Chpt. 13, 6)


I have been hired much like a mascot on a sports team to smile and drink and show my face at ceremonies, not to actually work. I have the foam model in my head, but there is no “nail house” on the model so I have escaped today, slipped out of a press conference between camera flashes and toasting glasses and managed to get a taxi; we are speeding out across endless overpass toward the site, Chinese news blaring over the car’s speakers. I must get a look at this nail house for myself, size it up and give them their marching orders.

I sit in the back, sandwiched with the young guy they have given me to translate, his eyes permanently attached to his mobile phone. I don’t know his name and he doesn’t seem to care too much to know mine. I notice another taxi travels behind us the whole way and stops a block ahead of us as we arrive and I wonder, in a made-for-TV moment, if I am being followed. I watch an old guy get out of the taxi clutching a shopping bag wander off ahead to a small row of shops in the distance but he doesn’t look back.

I leave paranoid thoughts behind and stride across the road through the torn muddy shreds of earth left in machines wakes. Blue construction steel fence has enveloped the site. I duck under a loosely chained driveway in the centre on the front side of the fence next to the company logo and I smile to myself as the translator trips on a rise of mud as he texts and walks- serves him right.

Once inside I stop, trying to take in what I see, startled. There are two deep round pits that all this construction rises out of; behind this, in the distance is a block of apartments that have, on the plans at least, already been removed but they are still partially standing. I see only two cranes installed to service the ten stories of the building that has currently been started in the pit to the left of me; there should be more machinery, more activity. Workers accommodation, at least, has been built at the far end of the site, opposite me- small white sheds are piled on top of each other, some sort of makeshift kitchen next to it billows smoke. Some of the bottom sheds have been made with what I assume are the bricks of the houses already demolished.

As I look around men stop around me – one guy stands in front of me to my left and a couple thrust pages at me that are tattered and torn. I ignore them for the moment taking in the nail house in front of me. I’d pictured a house or two standing amongst machinery but this is so much more than that- there is an island of land left in the middle of the second pit, and a narrow land bridge has been left to connect it to where I stand.

Sitting on top of that is a house, a regular terrace house that’s had other buildings obviously demolished around it, but this one has been spared, left intact and it’s perched up on top of the island like a rotten tooth. An old man shuffles around on the roof, piling up stones and rocks. He has red flags flying from makeshift beams of wood from the corners of the roof and he stops when he sees me and stares in our direction, peers at us like we are somehow the odd ones in this scene. The translator shuffles up beside me breathing heavily from the short walk and doesn’t seem to be at all taken aback, like what is in front of us is an ‘everyday’ occurrence.

Voices now attract my attention. I count over a dozen people wandering toward me. One guy has an ill-fitting security uniform on and a jar of tea in his hand and they all talk at once at me. The guard points back at the gate and I shrug and yell, “I don’t understand…” I wave my company ID at them, hope this scares them off, intimidates in some way. A dog starts barking from within the house in the pit. The translator looks at me for direction but I shrug and move closer to the earth bridge that connects the nail house to the edge. The small crowd that has gathered follows me.

As I stop on the land bridge itself to take a couple of images with my phone, the translator pulls on my sleeve, “We should go back, let others deal with this.”

The people who have followed us start to back up, won’t set foot on the bridge. I pull away from the translator, say, “I just need to let them know a couple of thingd, I’ll be all right.”

He laughs “Mr, the on-site office is over that way…” He points back behind us and I notice the small crowd are looking at each other- some smile and I wonder what these smiles mean.

“I won’t take long.” I start to walk across the land bridge. No one, including the translator, are moving with me; they stand watching like they are looking at an accident, but this suits me, it makes things less complicated. I notice a camera crew have run up behind the crowd but they keep their distance as well.

As I turn my head from them I look up to find the old man but he seems to have disappeared from site. It’s then the first projectile hits me. I am lucky that the first one is just a ball of mud that strikes my leg so it doesn’t hurt too much, but I still stagger a bit with the force and surprise of it. I’m off balance and I lurch toward the side of the land bridge, hands instinctively now over my head waiting for the next blow and I overbalance at the edge. I hear a collective sigh behind me and look down – the drop looks to be about twenty metres and I feel my fingers and toes tingle as I pull my weight back the other way to avoid dropping into the pit. I stumble as I do this and end up on my hands and knees.

Mud covers my legs and looks like it will stain my only suit and I curse under my breath but another projectile hits my head. It’s softer and larger. My legs crumple. Soft mud cascades down my face and brings me safely down to the ground where I curse again. I hear laughter from behind and I turn to hurl abuse at them but as I open my mouth the third projectile hits my back and pain shoots up into my neck.

Another harder object hits the ground in front of me as I try to get up, my eyes foggy with mud. It’s then I hear a loud woman’s voice from in front of me yell “Stop!”

I wipe mud off my face and it drips off the ends of my fingers. I peer through the grime looking for the source of the voice. I can’t see her face under a woollen hat and a hooded jacket.

I can only really see her eyes – they shine somehow out of the cold. She walks from the nail house and the old man trails twenty metres or so behind her, some sort of projectile still in his hand ready for battle.

Anger overwhelms me driven by the pain in my back, “What the fuck was that for?”

She comes closer now, pushes back the hood and she is instantly familiar- the girl from the nightclub. She says, “My father is causing all of us lots of trouble. I’m sorry.”

It takes her a fraction longer to recognize me, but then it’s there in the way her face tightens as I speak, “Your father is mad.”

She frowns, “My father is under a lot of pressure.”

Pain radiates across my back again in a new wave and I wince. “I just came out to chat with him, not get attacked.”

“My father was the one that attacked you, talk to him.” She turns to leave.

“I assume that animal behind you is your father?”

Zhen stops, spins around, “Don’t call my father names, drunk.”

“Drunk?” Mud is trickling into the corners of my mouth, it’s gritty in my teeth. I sneer, happy this has offended her, “You’re just lucky I don’t get the police out here.”

Zhen whistles and I hear the dog bark again. It appears from a hole in the wall at the front of her home and races toward me. I grin despite the pain, pretend the dog doesn’t frighten the piss out of me, “Calling out your attack dogs?” I leer.

Zhen stands opposite me, impassive and the dog, much to my relief, stops beside her. I look back, smiling. The film crew have advanced onto the land bridge and are still filming. I notice a brand on the side of the camera that seems to suggest some sort of local news station so I consider my next words carefully now. I clear my throat, straighten my muddy tie, push muddy hair out of my face and say, “Well I won’t bill you for the dry cleaning I’ll need.”

I hold out my hand to pressure her into a handshake, but the dog darts forward and sinks its teeth into my calf. There is excited chatter from the crowd behind and no one stops to help. I curse, trying to flick the dog away with my hand but only the translator makes an effort and the dog lets go of me to lash out at him. I launch a kick at the dog but my other foot slips in the mud and I end up landing on my backside. The jolt aggravates the pain in my back but scares the dog and I hear clapping from the now excited audience behind.

I keep my voice calm for the cameras, try my best to smile. When I look up at Zhen I notice she is holding her hand over her obviously grinning mouth and I say through gritted teeth, “Just remind your father he only has another forty eight hours to leave. We are behind schedule already and this building won’t stop for him or anyone else.”

Zhen turns and marches away, obviously filled with contempt and hate for me, yet I have sent her a clear strong message; at least I have that satisfaction. I get up slowly, fighting pain and mud. The foam model could not be more false, more unlike this muddy shitty fucking hole.

I get to the road, the crowd stares and smiles at me with my muddy suit and hair and I see a man with a shopping bag watching me from across the street. He smiles at me. He looks like an ordinary person, but he has perfectly straight white shining teeth and he nods his head at me when we make eye contact.

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Lindon – Glass rooms

Ground which can be abandoned but is hard to re-occupy is called ‘entangling’. From a position of this sort, if the enemy is unprepared, you may sally forth and defeat him. But if the enemy is prepared for your coming, and you fail to defeat him, then, return being impossible, disaster will ensue.”

(Sun Zi, Chpt. 10, 4 and 5)

I’m hung over from the third formal welcome dinner for me in the last several days. My throat is dry and my clothes smell of a hotpot meal and bijoe, a potent head-splitting white spirit. I squeeze out of the taxi into a bloom of humanity and as soon as I am upright and ready to walk away from the curb someone has jumped into the taxi and it is away again. I thread through people and pass between two bicycles with fruit laid out for sale on a tray behind the bicycle seats, my head pounding with each footstep like there is a direct line from my feet to my brain. I side step a beggar in blue jeans and Nike shoes who smells of mold and pushes a small dented plastic disposable cup full of old coins at me. I need all my coins and so I ignore him, pretend I haven’t see him.

A glass cube stuck to the side of the building hauls me away from the mess below. I notice a couple holding hands in the throng and I watch them as the lift ascends, wondering if I will ever be able to forget the scars Julie has left and be able to do that again with someone.

The American CEO is standing waiting for me as the lift doors ease open, an age-scarred version of the young man in the image with Zhang Zimin. He shakes my hand so hard the bones in my fingers creak under the strain and I wonder if he shook Zhang Ziminn’s hand like that, wonder if he dared.

We go up to the boardroom, a space almost completely devoid of concrete walls- it’s just curtains of glass on never ending city. The carpet has probably just been rolled out in here because it hasn’t even been attached to the floor, I can see it rolls up at the corners and sides.

I have borrowed all I can, stretched the goodwill of my family and friends to the limit just to get here- I’m anxious to get my signature down on the contract so I can start paying people back. But I forget all that for a moment and allow myself to be distracted by the view; it’s overwhelming, engulfing. The CEO notices and he says, “It’s quite a city isn’t it?” and I nod, trying to obscure my hunger. An old grey landscape is being swept away by glass steel and concrete stacked up by hundreds of cranes. It’s mesmerizing and my heart starts to pound when I think of the money to be made here, the staggering numbers that must lie beneath me.

His secretary comes in, she looks perfect, newly minted, like she has just come out of a box on a shelf. She tilts her head and smiles at me but doesn’t stop to talk- I’m part of a task she must perform, nothing more.

A large model of the apartment complex sits in the middle of a new office in a corner, the completed foam replica of the apartments we will build twenty stories into the sky. It looks small after my last job, like a toy. The CEO sees me looking over at the model and he waves me over toward it. From a distance it looks like a miniature of the real thing, but as we get closer I see plastic edges, sloppy paint and it looks fragile and cheap.

He begins to talk me through some figures on the number of apartments and their expectations but he is interrupted. Some locals in suits come to the door, ask to speak to him. He speaks for a while in Chinese that, to my untrained ear, sounds as good as the locals he is talking to, then excuses himself from me and turns to go.

I put out my hand, touch his sleeve, my anxiety spilling out, “The contract, is it ready to sign?”

He smiles, glances down at my hand, “It’s been finalized now, but if you have some settling in tasks to do, you can come back this afternoon or tomorrow morning.”

I try to curb my impatience, keep a smile on my face, slow my voice down, “I may as well sign it now, I can wait here.”

He nods and points in the direction of a meeting room he says my contract will be delivered to in a little while. He says there is a pile of magazines in there and then he strides away from me engrossed in his next conversation.

I take a wrong turn, end up at the doorway to another office. A lady in a black suit sits opposite a shorter woman who is crying- tears roll down her cheeks and drip off her chin. I stand shocked for a second, I don’t know what to say. The woman in black points in the other direction and pushes the door shut on me. I don’t understand what I have just seen, I’m trying to survive each day blindfolded and I’m stumbling ahead one step at a time.

His secretary is in the meeting room, she has a thick wad of paper wedged in her hands. I stare at it, hoping it’s my contract and she looks up at me and says, “Mr Lin, we are ready.”

“It’s Lindon.” I correct her, my eyes on the paper in her hands.

She laughs but her eyes are on something over my shoulder, “Mr Lin, please step inside so we can deal with the documents.” She motions for me to enter the meeting room and I step toward her and settle into a seat, lean forward in her direction opposite me. She lays the document down between us, the tips of her fingers resting on it. Her nails are painted a thick glossy red. She looks at me, the smile gone. I reach forward to pull the document toward me but her fingers press down and the document is stuck between us.

She says quietly, “There are certain formalities that we must discuss first.”

“Of course.”

“This is China so one of the documents you will sign here requires you to be aware that your contract will be terminated if you violate the laws and morals of the People’s Republic of China.” I pull a little harder on the document but she doesn’t release it, she asks, “Are you aware of what this means?”

I’m not but I don’t care. I say, to dodge more lengthy unnecessary talk, “Yes, of course.”

She lifts her fingers and I pull the document toward me, start flicking through the pages. She anticipates me and as I look up to ask for it, she slides across a black pen. She makes no eye contact, she is already lost in her mobile phone, onto a new person, a new task.

I scribble in signatures where required, ignoring all the fine print, ignoring all the conditions. The only figure I check is the monthly salary and bonus. I smile as I finish and slide the documents eagerly across the table. I sit back, relieved. I have not disguised how much I need the job with my eagerness.

The numbers in the contract have so many zeros I forget my hang over, the jackhammers in my head. As I rise to leave, smiling stupidly, she says she has to tell me something else. She slides the meeting room door closed, and shuffles her chair next to mine as I sit back down. I can smell her perfume, it’s strong and flowery. She leans toward me and begins to tell me about nail houses.

The lift seems to take an age to get to the ground floor. I stare at the floor working through what I have just learned, feel the weight of it bearing down on me. I find myself, naively, looking for the couple holding hands but I see instead people alone, their hands in pockets, their eyes far away.



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Zhen Yi – Caged

“Be stern in the council-chamber, so that you may control the situation.” (Sun Zi, “The Art of War”, Chpt. 11, 64)


Even from here, three blocks away, I can feel the small shock waves from the school as the walls crash down. It’s one of the last buildings to be demolished, the chalk stained white washed walls in which I completed my schooling. Dust is dislodged in my room, it drifts in small currents towards the window. I have lived here, in my parent’s house, forever. I’m itching to leave. I want to fly away.

The door still has my name carved in it, Zhen Yi, from my school days. If you are a foreigner reading this, you say my name “Jen Ee”. My parents have already stuck the red double happy character paper cut out above my name even though the wedding is weeks away.

I feel the lightness of the bag leave my hand. It’s ready to be filled with memories from here. My finance, Sun, will come tonight after work to pick me up and we will spend our first night in the flat we rented across the city. This will all be an ‘open secret’ of course. Something everyone knows is happening, but no one talks about. We can’t officially start living together until our wedding night. He said he will borrow his cousin’s car, an old VW Santana that breaks down more often than it completes a trip, to rescue me from my parents.

My mother is trying to paper over her sadness about me going, and the avalanche of other things. She shoves food at me as I go back out into the living room. She has tea made in her chipped enamel cups. I say no to the food. It looks reheated and dead. She doesn’t seem to have the energy to cook fresh food each day now. She looks pale, too thin, like the part of her I know is wilting. She says she is glad the school is gone, she says it was old and mouldy. But her eyes betray a different feeling. There are no more shockwaves now.

My father is by the front window cleaning up glass, sweeping it up into an old red cracked dustpan. Someone smashed the front window last night, used a broken piece of concrete. The lights reflected from the glass buzz around him, flies around the dying. Last week they jammed pig shit in the guttering. The week before that they burnt my mother’s clothes. That was the last straw for her, that’s when she passed out for the first time.

The property company desperately want us gone, we are the last house left on site undemolished. My father has turned our house into a ‘nail house’. It’s a pun that refers to nails that are stuck in wood, and can’t be pulled out. My father is the nail. We have even been in the papers. Defiant photos of my father on the roof pelting attackers with rocks. He is our family’s greatest embarrassment. He has some old fashioned idea about this being “his home” but it’s just a sad sagging old building that needs tearing down. Some of our family friends have already moved into new flats across town, with air con and sealed windows. I had respect for him when I thought he was just hanging out for a better compensation package, but I despaired when he started ranting about “our rights”.

The tea burns my lip. I blow gently across the steaming surface of the liquid and watch my mother through the fog. She goes to the kitchen to wash up and I can see her from here. Her hands shake. I tell her to stop but she ignores me. My father does nothing, I can hear the sound of shattered glass scratching across the concrete floor like gnashing dragons teeth as he continues to sweep, lost in his own battle. I sigh and leave my tea as I head for the kitchen to stop my mother washing. I look at the clock, willing it forward. In a few hours Sun will rescue me from all this shit.


Lindon – Making luxury home future


“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” (Sun Zi, Chpt. 3, 18)


How could I end up somewhere so grey, so cold, cocooned in concrete and smog at the end of the world? Then I close my eyes against an icy gust of wind and I see her nasty smile and that image tightens my stomach, brings the anger up into my throat. The end of a relationship haunts you in ways other things don’t; it hounds you through the beginnings of your new life. China seemed to be the best place to forget Julie’s face, a place far enough away, big enough to allow me to forget- where a bankrupt person can work off their debt.

I open my eyes. They don’t seem to understand my English and I don’t understand a thing; but they smile nonetheless, cigarette stained teeth and touched up carbon fibre black hair. It has started to snow, it settles on our coats like icing sugar on puff pastry. I look up at the small stage next to us constantly to see if we will begin soon, but there’s only a lonely microphone there now.

We are outside our office building in the city, my seventh day in China; seven days of semi-comprehensible ceremonies and planning meetings. We stomp around in hats and gloves and heavy coats trying to keep warm, but I am optimistic today- this is the official start of the project, start of what I hope will be actual work. I gaze up at a banner above the stage with the company name “Golden Dragon Property” printed across it; below that, “Making luxury home future first-class world in modern harmonious China” for all to see with its lost articles and persuasive impotence.

Finally, three beautiful girls in long red traditional dresses wobble up on stage in high heels and we are pointed at, the translator and I, to join them. We clamber up and stand to the right of the pretty girls and others file on stage to the left; one of them is the CEO. I’ve only seen his photograph in the city offices, above the front entrance, as a young man smoking cigarettes with Premier Zhang Ziming, the one-time head of the country. The image is blown up to garish proportions, maybe a metre wide- a totem of power. It arrests you as you walk in, presses you down, reminding you how powerful he is- the white man from over the ocean who smoked cigarettes with Zhang Zimin isn’t to be fucked with.

Suits move forward with more urgency to the ribbon, cigarettes hanging out the corner of their mouths; lazy precarious columns of ash jut out at angles and make grey smudges on the shoulders of their jackets. The CEO holds scissors up high, the metallic edge catches in the sunlight and he brings the scissors down like he’s slaughtering an animal, sacrificing to something. The ribbon falls to the ground with no cheers, just a crescendo of a band’s rhythm and some lukewarm clapping – classic corporate propaganda.

I thought this would all be so simple, come cheaply; but everything has its price.


Zhen – Model houses

“While heeding the profit of my counsel, avail yourself also of any helpful circumstances over and beyond the ordinary rules.”

(Sun Zi, Chpt. 1, 16)


It’s good to see Sun for a change. But why are we here? My bags are bulging with objects ready for our flat. But he has told me that can wait, that he wants to show me an ‘exciting development’ first. Our plan had been to buy our own apartment close to my parents in the city, to buy a place in an adjoining block of the new development. Instead we are here, on the edge of town, on the edge of civilization. Sun doesn’t listen.

More lines. Small kids play toys on the side, bored old people squat. They put down newspaper and sit on it. Above us a giant bill board is stretched out, it flaps softly in the wind. Two perfect looking people with digitally altered white teeth and no blemishes stand with an impossibly cute child. They live in the completed development in some indefinite future. It has made them happy, four walls and a roof. The woman’s breasts look like they have been stretched. Everyone around them smiles like they are in an American movie, and the sky is blue. Blue in blue, fluffy white clouds. We see blue sky like this two or three weeks a year. Perhaps that’s why they have the imported smiles.

Sun has bought snacks. He slides them out of his bag and starts cracking open nuts, throws the shells at his feet. He peels a small handful and offers them to me. He does it quickly, excitedly. I take one. It’s dry and flavourless. It gets stuck in my teeth and I spit the rest out.

He is looking through the leaflet, like everyone else. They flap in the breeze in people’s hands, some blow away down the line toward the street.

I don’t know what to say to him, he feels thousands of miles away, even as we touch. I’m thinking of my full bags at my parents place, bulging with the possibility of a new freedom with Sun.

“I like the north block…” Sun says, spitting some husks out onto the ground at his feet, “…there are some good floor plans still left.” He looks up the line. He knows that a lot depends on how quickly we get to the front of that line. Lots of what we like will be sold by the time we get there.

“They are better.” I throw in, irritated. I’m watching the leaflets blow into the street and my eyes follow one that gets picked up by a gust and drifts back into a farmer’s field next door. This development is in farmland, rising from a peasants village that’s being demolished. I scan the city on the horizon. Every side of this development is framed by wheat fields, a little rice. I can smell animals on the wind. Maybe pigs. No one seems to look into the farms, they all have their heads stuck in their brochures. They are all dreaming of high rise, the future not the present.

Sun speaks, excitement lacing the edges of his words “There will be a small shopping area built on the east side, and two more developments the other side.” He knows I’m wondering why we are here, he doesn’t want to answer the question.

I let the wind take my pamphlet, it flutters away, “This is not what we agreed. I don’t want to be a farmer.” He sighs, puts his arm around me. He is blushing at my very public directness, “We couldn’t get a place this size in the city.” He smiles more to the people around us than me. To cover his loss of face.

I nod, watching a farmer cycle out to a spot in a wheat field. It all looks the same to me but he must know of a spot, and he stops and gets something out of a bag. It looks to be a long tool of some kind. He starts to attack the earth.

“We are getting in at the right time…” He must be looking at me for a reply, I sense it in his silence. The knowing of lovers.

I say, “Yes, good time.”

He squints at me, “You seem to be thinking about something else. I thought you’d be happy.”

“I am.” I say, trying to keep my irritation from getting out.

“This is where our baby will be.” He says. I have small future snaps in my head of our life, but they seem to be fading. The colour is blurring. Wedding nerves.

I touch his leg, “Don’t you think it’s a little cold?” He rummages for a light jacket, drapes it on my shoulders. I let my shoulders slump under the jacket. I pick at the edges of a nail that has split.

I say, “I hate lines. You know that.” He examines my face not convinced.

The line starts to shorten. Sun draws some ideas on a couple of the plans, and we discuss what designs will be good. “That will be good for the baby…”, “That will be good for our parents…”, “We should focus on decorating like xxx here…”. I agree, seeing the good all these will do everyone.

A couple of families leave, frustrated with the line. Or perhaps they’ve heard the place they want has been sold? We are in the showroom now. Three large models are buried in a glass box like jewels made of foam. People in purple suits with laser pointers stand around looking bored, or hungry or both. They flash the light around, show what places are left. I hear a lot of talk about price. These are cheap places.

Sun elbows his way in closer to the model, starts matching the plans to the model. His eyes hunt the small doll-house-like windows. He turns around, he has taken a laser pointer and points for me, drags me closer and out of my daydream. “That would be good for us, the kids. Our parents would like the way it faces.”

I agree, “It would please everyone.” I have a fantasy, just for a moment like I’ve never had before. In this fantasy I back away while Sun is preoccupied and slip through the people and run.

I run through fields of wheat, disappearing to find my own potholed road after stealing the peasant’s bicycle.

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Jason Erik Lundberg – ‘Bodhisattva at the Heat Death of the Universe’

Zha materialized in my front yard, having finally found me after an interval of roughly five million years, give or take a few millennia. He was human again, and male, wearing those ragged worn-out monk’s robes he seemed to cherish so much; they rippled and fluttered in the breeze, even though my little asteroid hosted no atmosphere and, therefore, no wind. Above us, the twin red supergiants of this system—which I’d long ago named Mother and Father, so much bigger and older than when I had first settled in this place—rotated in their dance of peanut-shaped illumination.

“Hello, Zha,” I said, continuing to rake pebbles into the form of a gigantic asterisk, the image reaching halfway round the asteroid’s face, taking patience and artistry and determination; he and I both knew what the message meant, and I suppose I’d done so in order to call him here. Despite millions of years of solitude, I supposed I still wanted the occasional contact.

Yha. My name was projected, sent directly into my mind. I preferred the physical act of talking, of sending air up my esophagus to vibrate my vocal cords and produce sounds. The fact that no air could be found in the immediate vicinity was irrelevant, and both Zha and I were past such trivialities. Have you finally decided to forgo this existence and travel with me into the Pure Land?

“Can’t a person call her former lover for a chat without leaping into the subject of existence-transcending? Has it been so long that you’ve forgotten how to engage in small talk?”

Zha’s expression remained neutral, but a dozen microscopic gestures flitted across his face. I smiled at the thought that I still knew how to irritate him. What would be the point, Yha? We have had every conversation that it is possible to have, in so many incarnations and iterations that I have lost count. Even after achieving enlightenment, I remained in cyclic existence in order to guide every last sentient being to Nirvana, including you, who are now the last. I am tired, and the stars are tired. It is time to end this foolish game of yours.

“Game? You think I’ve been playing a game all this time?” I threw my rake down onto the carbonaceous chondrite and began kicking at the pebbles of my asterisk, scattering the image into unrecognizability. It seemed that my message had been both prescient and affirmative: Zha was still an unbelievable asshole. “You still don’t understand me, you arrogant bastard. Not during the many incarnations in which we were married, not when I was your daughter, or mother or father or brother or sister, and certainly not now. You want games? I’ll give you games.”

I dematerialized, leaving behind my corporeal form, my latest home, and the plants and pets I had conjured up from the asteroid’s physical material and manipulated for my amusement and companionship; I left it all to crumble and became pure consciousness, leaping light years with but a thought, pushing myself beyond the bounds of the Milky Way, skipping from one star system to another as easily as I once had skipped over the paving stones on a pond filled with artificially-enlarged koi, the pond where we had first met, all those endless lives ago. After I’d slipped from a wet stone and splashed into the shallow pond, Zha, crouching on the bank, had laughed, not maliciously, but with a wisdom that already understood futility and acceptance; I had taken his hand then, and laughed too at my sorry state, and our karmas become forever intertwined, like a carefully sculpted bamboo.

I felt Zha’s presence dozens of light years behind me but closing the gap quickly. My path led directly through the hearts of moribund blue supergiants, immersed me in the violent radiation of hypernovae, and skirted the infinitesimally-detectable event horizons of supermassive black holes. I felt the urge to clutch every passing star to me and fling them back at Zha as casually as a clod of dirt, but incorporeal as we both were, the effect would have been negligible.

I ran, Zha chased, and billions of years flowed by. It gave me time to think, and to reflect on the gradual darkening of the space around us. The galaxies were burning themselves out, what had seemed like endless fuel and energy proving its finitude before my vision. Would it be possible to exist once the universe had expired? And, as Zha had so frustratingly pointed out, what would be the point? Damn him.

I became somatic once more and reposed onto the shifting plasma surface of a white dwarf on the outer edge of the known universe, warming myself with the dying star’s heat. The crackling and hissing of its radiation in extremis tickled my auditory senses. Why was I still clinging to this existence? Was I really so afraid of death? It was unclear how long I sat there contemplating my stubbornness and fear, but at some point Zha arrived, as I’d known he would. He didn’t say or think a word, and instead just rested next to me, still infinitely patient despite everything I’d ever said and done to him. Calm and resignation settled over me like a blanket as the white dwarf’s energy cooled.

“I’m ready,” I told him, and his response was not condescension or arrogance, but relief. He took my hand and vocalized the mantras he’d so long ago devoted himself to learning and tried to teach me. The ancient words flowed around us as a palpable living river, and I repeated them in sync with Zha’s utterances. All around us the stars winked out, but the chanted syllables took their place, filling every occupiable space in the now-cold universe with Om, our white dwarf the last to burn out, but deplete itself it did, bleeding its energy into us, into the words, lending us strength, and as its temperature reached absolute zero and its atoms ceased movement, a doorway of blissful orange light opened in my mind.

Zha turned to me, his smile both beautiful and beatific, his essence the very apotheosis of empathy and love, and held out his hand. I took it and followed him through.




(originally published in Strange Mammals, Infinity Plus Books, Oct 2013)

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Jason Erik Lundberg – ‘Occupy: An Exhibition’
July 21, 2017

Jason Erik Lundberg – ‘Occupy: An Exhibition’

Jason Erik Lundberg was born in New York, grew up in North Carolina, and has lived in Singapore since 2007. He is the author and anthologist of over twenty books, including Red Dot Irreal (2011), The Alchemy of Happiness (2012), Fish Eats Lion (2012), Strange Mammals (2013), Embracing the Strange (2013), the six-book Bo Bo and Cha Cha children’s picture book series (2012–2015), Carol the Coral (2016), and the biennial Best New Singaporean Short Stories anthology series (2013–2017). He is also the fiction editor at Epigram Books (where the books he’s edited have been shortlisted for and won the Singapore Literature Prize and Singapore Book Awards, and made multiple year’s best lists since 2012), as well as the founding editor of LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction (est. 2012), and a recipient of the Creation Grant from Singapore’s National Arts Council. His writing has been anthologized widely, shortlisted for multiple awards, and honourably mentioned twice in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.


Occupy: An Exhibition*



  1. The early morning sky over Singapore’s Central Business District, grey and overcast. The clouds harshen the sunlight into flatness; one can almost hear them rumbling with impotent thunder, holding the air tense and stiflingly still with the anxiety of the forthcoming rainstorm that will not come.


  1. The ground floor steel-and-glass entrance of One Raffles Quay, Asian headquarters for international banks such as UBS, Barclays, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, and Societe Generale. A chain of elderly women and men with interlinked arms forms a blockaded perimeter, some sitting in wheelchairs, some standing on aged legs and propped up with canes or walkers, some sitting on blankets directly on the ground, all of them staring straight ahead, unmoving.


  1. A similar linear barricade of the elderly, this time blocking the entrance to the ORQ offices inside the pedestrian underpass that links up with the MRT train station.


  1. A wide shot of the CBD’s other skyscraping seats of capitalist power and influence—including the UOB Building, the Far East Finance Building, and Ocean Financial Centre—all surrounded on the ground by calm, unmoving chains of the elderly, looked on by armies of ambitious civil servants and financial wizards eager to cross the line and earn the day’s manna.


  1. The gathered crowd outside ORQ, an ocean of white button-down long-sleeved shirts and black slacks and skirts. In the foreground, a handsome European man of indeterminate ethnicity in his late 20s, dressed from head to toe in tailored Massimo Dutti and holding a Fendi briefcase, representative of the financial success of the young men and women around him, likely with clients all over Asia and Europe, and an imported Jaguar housed in ORQ’s basement car park. On the man’s face is an expression of bemused confusion, as if unsure whether this is all a publicity stunt, or a government-mandated day of observance, or something else entirely.


  1. A close-up of one of the ORQ “protestors,” a Chinese octogenarian so thin that he appears barely more alive than a skeleton, clothed only in a stained singlet, greyish Bermuda shorts, and undersized thong sandals. The old uncle’s face is lined with deep crevasses, his skin leathery with a lifetime spent working outside under the scorching tropical sun. Despite his tired appearance, his eyes blaze with determination.


  1. A female police negotiator, engaged in a one-way conversation with an old Malay woman in a wheelchair. The negotiator’s posture and gestures are indicative of a willingness to discover what the protestors want, but the old woman’s gaze purposefully avoids eye contact, making it apparent that the police are not who the elderly will open to. Out of focus in the background are just visible a number of other police officers in their dark blue uniforms of authority.


  1. Mr. Massimo Dutti stands less than half a meter from the old uncle in the singlet, his mouth open in an angry tirade, no longer bemused or confused, his pointing index finger only centimeters from the uncle’s nose, the tendons in his neck protruding, a vein in his forehead swollen and standing out. The bankers in the immediate vicinity look uncertain whether to cheer the young man on or restrain his outburst.


  1. Mere seconds later, yet Mr. Massimo Dutti and his cohorts are recoiling backward in incredulity at the sight of the entire chain of elderly surrounding ORQ having transformed into stone as a reaction to the threat, looking for all intents and purposes as if they have been sculpted and then placed in that location as a work of public art.


  1. The ORQ protestors once again flesh and blood, the old uncle’s eyes projecting an implicit warning. The elderly on either side silently share the uncle’s expression, their attention now focused.


  1. Mr. Massimo Dutti, very likely not accustomed to being treated in such a way from a runty little uncle who looks as if he normally hassles hawker center patrons to buy packets of tissues, leans forward with his arm over his head, his Fendi briefcase in mid-swing on a trajectory to connect with the old man’s cranium, his lips drawn back sharply over his teeth. In the background, horrified looks from the assembled bankers. The female police negotiator reaches forward with one hand, her mouth open in a shout.


  1. The octogenarian effortlessly grips Mr. Massimo Dutti’s wrist holding the briefcase with one hand, a steely strength belying his age and appearance, preventing the Fendi from making contact. With the other, he has pulled the young banker close by the lapels of his designer suit jacket, his tight grip wrinkling the material into distortion, their faces close enough to kiss. The old uncle is completely calm. The young man’s eyes are widened in surprise.


  1. Close-up on the horrified expressions of the young bankers. Their features are pinched, as if responding to the sound of horrible unearthly shrieks that seem as though they will never end, and then cut off abruptly. Out of focus, a young Chinese man’s head is turned to the side, his hand over his mouth, as though about to vomit in terror.


  1. The sidewalk in front of the old uncle, where lies a desiccated corpse still clad in Massimo Dutti, the clothing now hanging loosely from the steaming husk of a human being. Only the legs of the old uncle and the elderly to either side are visible in the frame, but their skin glows golden as if from an infusion of siphoned energy.


  1. An overhead shot of the entrance of ORQ, where hundreds of people scatter in all directions at once, away from the elderly perimeter. The police officers in dark blue are just barely noticeable, attempting the futility of calming down the fleeing bankers or directing their egress.


  1. A long shot of the CBD, utterly abandoned but for the single street-level ring around each financial building and a smattering of drained corpses, the noon sunlight gleaming off skyscraper glass onto the empty thoroughfares below. Police barricades as far back as Niccol Highway form a secondary security perimeter.


  1. A shellacked MediaCorp television anchor, her mouth open in mid-word, nearly crowded off of the screen by the gigantic inset displaying an image of the link-armed elderly at ORQ and the words: WHO ARE THE 35K? WHAT DO THEY WANT? The static ribbon up top, in bright red letters: A National Day of Emergency. The news crawl at the bottom of the screen displays the time (2:24 p.m.), the Straits Times Index (down over 1,300 points), and the score of the latest Manchester United vs. Arsenal match (2-1).


  1. An army tank squats on the street just outside of ORQ, its cannon barrel aimed directly at the elderly perimeter, the afternoon sun glinting off of its green metal exterior, surrounded on all sides by young National Servicemen called up on reservist duty, covered head to toe in pixelated camo gear, their rifles raised and ready.


  1. The air thick with rifle smoke. Pockmarks dot the neighboring buildings, broken glass litters the concrete sidewalk. Three NSmen lay on the ground, their faces contorted in pain, hands attempting to quell the blood oozing from the holes punched through their bodies by their own ricocheting bullets.


  1. Out of focus, a camouflaged pant leg retreating to a distance behind the tank, a blurred variegation of greens.


  1. Close in on the muzzle flash from the barrel of the tank’s 120-millimeter cannon, the explosion of force a blazing orange mushroom, with a lighter orange line of trajectory extending forward from its middle, reaching, reaching, reaching for the statues in such close proximity.


  1. Stillness. Billowing smoke. What on first glance appears to be a grey sheet of paper drifting to the ground; on closer inspection: a rectangular sliver of concrete.


  1. The tank in retreat, its rear end displayed to the unharmed once-again flesh-and-blood elderly, turned away by non-violent resistance. On the sidewalk and the city street: concrete and rubble and shards of glass, all loosed by the massive concussion of energy.


  1. A line of young protestors beyond the police barricades, none older than thirty, mouths open in defiant yells, fists pumping the air, each holding a man-made placard: THE 35K ARE ALL OUR GRANDPARENTS! ABANDONED BY SOCIETY ≠ NATIONAL THREAT! THE 35K ARE NOT YOUR ENEMY! WHERE’S YOUR FILIAL PIETY NOW?! Unlikely that they would have been granted a permit for this protest, and yet the nearby police officers stand back, unable to join in, but unwilling to disperse.


  1. A MediaCorp news feed, but off-kilter as though the video camera has been bumped, zoomed in on a leg emerging from the rear passenger door of a black Mercedes-Benz limousine, clad in charcoal grey designer pants, the equally expensive shoe polished to a high shine. Recognizable outfitting of the Old Man. The time indicated on the crawl: 6:37 p.m.


  1. The mass of elderly protestors all stares at the Old Man, whose hands are raised in a questioning gesture. His face out of view, his back muscles tense against his ironed white short-sleeved dress shirt, his white hair cropped close to his skull as if just cut earlier in the day. A small irregular oval of perspiration in the middle of his back.


  1. The ORQ perimeter, now unfurled, reaching around to encircle the Old Man, all elderly eyes on their contemporary in age. The Old Man’s head is turned, shouting to someone out of frame, his hand up in a gesture of halt against the barrel of the handgun only just visible.


  1. From above, a double ring of protestors completely pens in the Old Man at its center. Outside the protective paddock, a confusion of security officers, hands to ear-mounted Bluetooth communication, body language indicative of panic.


  1. The wrinkled octogenarian uncle in singlet and Bermudas faces the Old Man, his mouth open, his hand extended to shake. The Old Man’s gaze at the proffered hand is wary and anxious, as though recalling the fate of Mr. Massimo Dutti and the other expendable bankers.


  1. Close-up on a tight handshake, the skin of both hands creased and liver-spotted, yet the muscles and bones underneath still convey power and confidence from both men.


  1. Tight on the Old Man’s face, his expression full of surprise and relief. The elderly in view behind him relax; some begin to smile.


  1. The entire perimeter, and the Old Man, sit down directly on the ground. The old uncle speaks. The Old Man leans in to listen.


  1. Over the shoulder of the Old Man as he calls to the other limousines parked next to his, the assembled crowd consisting of his son, the entire Cabinet, and various other members of Parliament, who lean forward to catch every one of the Old Man’s utterances.


  1. The suited government figures spreading out in all directions, each man and woman headed toward a different occupied area, not entirely comfortable but unwilling to contravene the Old Man’s dictum.


  1. An Indian woman in leg braces shakes the hand of the Old Man’s son, whose smile is practiced yet genuine. The woman’s sari is faded, its colors dulled with use and wear, yet it glitters in the fading sunlight, throwing sparkles onto her interlocutor’s face.


  1. A longer shot of the CBD, displaying more double rings, inside which sit each Cabinet minister and the other members of Parliament gathered for this summit, each locus of political power straining to hear the quiet, yet firm, voices of their constituency.


  1. From far overhead, the thick orange rays of the setting sun illuminate more than two dozen perfect circles, each circumference glowing a light gold, a color endemic of hope, acceptance, and optimism.




* originally published in Red Dot Irreal, Revised Edition, Infinity Plus Books, Dec 2012

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Jerica Wong – ‘Sandpaper Towels’

Jerica Wong is a secondary school student who is currently studying in Singapore.


You can dry my tears

With abrasive

Sandpaper towels


Weak light bathed her in a soft glow. Her gnarled hands rested limply on the armrests of her wheelchair as she stared out at the same maddening view she had seen for the past five years. A smog of different fumes enveloped the city, casting yet more gloom onto the despondent cityscape (which she was merely imagining – row after row of tiny apartments filled up most of the view). Her time was nearing.

The end comes from the beginning. The beginning to the cycle of life puzzled her. Why would a woman put herself through such suffering to raise a child? The reason lay before her eyes now – to birth the possibility of changing things for a better future.

In her youth, she had scorned the sacrifice and hardship a mother had to endure. She had scorned the pitiful resources left on Earth, and the dying Earth itself that would be pushed into her child’s palms as inheritance when her generation died out and washed their hands of it. She had scorned the obligation of filial piety her child would have to fulfil, even though the child had no other freedom of choice but to live.

A child was optional in her life, compulsory for humankind.

Now she was three decades past the expiration date of her fertility, alone. Her paralysis immobilized most of her body but could not freeze the tears that were trickling on her face. The unnatural sound of moving metal parts unnerved her.

“There, there. You must be going through grief. I can only imagine your pain. It’s alright to cry, and if you need to talk I’ll be here.”

The robot was only uttering recordings of soothing, comforting words, scripted by psychiatrists to fit a situation it had identified. A mathematical algorithm enabled lifeless objects to take care of the elderly. A hand even rested on her shoulder to mimic human warmth. And when she died, this same warm personality would be the one to put her death into an equation and a series of commands:


= no protoplasm detected

= no signs of life

= find corpse

= clean up

= notify robots in residences of acquaintances/friends (if any [living]) of deceased’s passing + Block 2679 Unit #14-19 ’s vacancy

= cremate.

= report to distribution centre for new human


Her mouth opened and shut like a goldfish, gasping for air as sobs stole her breath. A dry, abrasive square was pressed against her face, rubbing up and down. She opened her eyes a crack and saw the robot in front of her.


The robot had mistaken it for her face towel – the sandpaper she kept in an old wooden tissue box from her days as an artisan.

The Elderly Care Association had assured the government that the robot was “99% compatible for all ages”. But the 1% incompatibility had manifested itself.

Her lips to cry out but her feeble vocal chords refused to comply. The shutdown button was frustratingly out of reach. Even if it was within reach, she wouldn’t have been able to press it. She desperately willed it to run out of battery. The salty tears stung the abrasion; the agony of the roughness on top of existing pain brought forth more tears.

Perhaps this removal of layers, sanded away to smoothness, would reveal the essence of humanity. What was left for humans to do? The robot moved away from her. The sandpaper fluttered to the ground.


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Josh Stenberg – ‘Reentry’

Josh Stenberg writes and translates fiction and poetry. Stints in Nanjing, Hong Kong and Taipei have led him to a job teaching Chinese literature, theatre, and language at The University of Sydney. 





Let me introduce you to Caroline Miao just as she is becoming Miao Tingting once again, the customs uniform wordlessly waving for her to go through, to pass on, to proceed already. She picks up her luggage at the carousel, missing it on the first go-round because she is distracted by an urgent dingle from her phone, now she zips the big suitcase open to check that none of the LV packages are missing, she has seen online that sometimes they are purloined, and now she struggles out to wait for the bus that will take her from Pudong back to her home across the Yangtze, in Yangang. She will need to take two buses, actually, but for the moment she can only wait for the first of these. Thanks for your understanding.

Oh, we are already three days later, at one of the inescapable banquets. Which one, neither she nor I can properly remember—they run together, like similes in the rain. Her father is showing her off to other men of his approximate age and status; the fathers of the eligible; the peers. They are complementing her prettiness, they do not know or care that their compliments are, objectively, appalling; thankfully it does not occur to her that if she were a little poorer and a little prettier they would want her as a mistress. She sees through, but not too far.

On her earlobes, where else, she is wearing her French earrings, her hair is bobbed and highlighted, everyone is sipping a red wine she has lugged back with her, which privately everyone thinks is too sour but which cannot be openly criticized. The airport duty-free woman at Charles De Gaulle suggested it; it is known to be very popular in China; it bears the name and sketch of an imaginary chateau. If deception is being practiced, it is remote, almost generous.

Since her father is executive assistant to the vice-mayor, the abalone is free; and how she loathes, how she execrates, abalone! She tries, unsuccessfully, to deflect it, to humble it off, when the server, mumbly in her submissiveness, flourishes it. To no avail. It gleams in front of Tingting returned, obscene blob, tasteless, self-indulgent; she politely amputates a corner; it jiggles. In her mouth it is warm and tasteless like homecoming.

The restaurant manager enters and theatrically says “Bonjou” and she rises and says “Bonjou” and everybody raucously echoes Bonjou and what fun, what fun. And also, before I forget: what fun.

In her room, which thankfully her mother has not touched, except to clean, weekly and once especially thoroughly before her daughter’s return, Tingting texts her friends. She wants to be texting with France, or at least to be known in Yangang to be texting with France, but the people she knows there do not use WeChat and Facebook is of course blocked. With her gift of moderate foresight, she forced some of them download WeChat before she left but time has shown that none of them will ever check it, despite promises, despite friendship signals and parleys; Pauline had tried to explain her that WeChat was a mechanism of authoritarian control and therefore to be principled against in the desultory, relativistic European way. French people talked a great deal of nonsense about China—suspicious of WeChat but supportive of the Cultural Revolution.

Meanwhile, stretched out on her bed like a depilated cat, Tingting can feel her store of French words eroding, depleting, like a talent or an illness slowing being shed. Leaving a foreign country is like dementia, you know that you are forgetting, you are permitted to be conscious of the fact that you are losing it, there is a grace available somewhere. Forgiveness is a rearrangement of foreignness. Tingting memorises words like “memory” so that the next time she meets a French person she can talk about her affliction and by so talking to deny it. To have something, almost someone, to blame. Oh, beloved.

I should mention: everybody is at home from Shanghai or Beijing or Hong Kong and comparing, exchanging boredoms for the holidays. They do not go out and meet each other, everything is closed anyway, the staff is in its villages, but society is not totally eradicated, they send each other cartoon images indicating New Year’s celebrations. So raucous. In the real world, of course, firecrackers have been banned in the city centre for eleven years; it is a prosperous and a civilized city. Tingting’s district was named Jiangsu Province Class Two Civilised City only months ago. Older people speak of celebration as if it were a bygone era.

Around the bend, it will be the year of the Rooster: most often in her wish-messages Tingting deploys the picture of two red roosters, joined at the tail in an imitation of a paper-cutting, with lanterns dangling from their beaks with “Auspicious” printed upon them and the characters flowing together. Furthermore circulating are many videos of fat babies and stacks of gold ingots and memes that purport to show Justin Bieber wishing a happy year of the rooster, and these zip around between the youngish people with their phones on beds and their doors shut and the heating on. The laziest kids, the worst ones, or maybe the ones with secret lives in the real world, just answer every message with to you too.

She googles (well, since she cannot get on Google, she Baidus, but you knew what I meant) several horoscopes. She is going to have an outstanding a mediocre a lucky and/or a cautious year. She applies all these prognostications to Peng, because Peng is somehow still the point to which everything tends, the pivot around which meaning arranged, or else he is emphatically not the point; which amounts to the same thing, men being a question of emphasis, of stress on a syllable (in French) or of tonality (in Chinese). Peng is not back yet, he is working in Shanghai, and won’t come home until the day before New Year’s, he is said to claim it is on account of work, but she believes him to be designing to keep her waiting. She does not text him yet. She is very forbearing, self-abnegating. She wants him to believe that he does not occur to her. Both occur to one another constantly, and the courtship of silences and punishments is raising their respective temperature, like any bug, like any chronic, low-grade inflammation. Is love a parasite you host?

Every day she wonders whether, when he arrives, she will deign to see him or not, and decides the issue firmly one way; and then firmly the other way hours later. These twice-daily final resolutions give her a sense of accomplishment, of progress, of newness and rebirth that charms with the endless and endlessly delayed promise of the festival. And there is a joy, like opening a present, to start reconsidering the issue, the interminable nostalgia of Peng, the next morning, or after the lunchtime nap.

Once, thankfully, almost by sleight of hand, she escapes to the lake park with her friend Yuli. Tingting’s mother is subsumed with an aunt in the kitchen-cooking crackle and her father is at a banquet (her father has always been at a banquet; it is his habitat); she is not missed. Yuli rewards her with news.

Yuli has been recently engaged to be married to the manager of a factory that manufactures the machines that make sewage pipes. “No one makes them anywhere else, anymore” exclaims Yuli, proud-embarrassed-humble, “It’s practically a monopoly.” They are young and it seems like the market situation of sewage pipe manufacturing machines will continue unchanged forever. Tingting wishes Yuli luck and happiness. She will try to be there for the wedding. She does not inquire but Yuli volunteers that the factory town where she will live, where they make the machines, does not especially smell. Why would it?

Yuli’s forever future established, admired, and discarded, they round the manmade lake and sit on a bench of the concrete pavilion with the crude plastic dragons on the eaves, and Yuli extrudes the crumbly little haw roundlets that Tingting does not know she has been missing. As they fall to pieces in her mouth, Tingting realizes that she had thought them gone forever, one more feature snuffed out by progress, by development, by the march towards special characteristics, one does not quite know of what. She feels guilty for almost having missed them.

Meanwhile, Yuli shows Tingting some tricks about how not to breathe too deeply when outside. The air pollution is better than in the north, but still one has to be artful, one must take care if one has just arrived from abroad; she has read so online. A school of carp has been collecting nearby them, and against coins they grind feed from a machine and watch the carps nip one another for the treats. They stretch and move on; the girls try to keep talking, but any depth of conversation is rendered impossible by the spectacle of the cloud of hungry carp now following the girls along the riverbank. Tingting asks whether the carp would eat Yuli if she fell in and Yuli says it is more dangerous for Tingting because she is sweeter. Tingting answers that they will both taste of haw.

They do not talk about boys because it is only three days to New Year and everybody has come to air their children in stuffed jackets and so they could be too easily overheard. Yangang has a population of 1.1 million, but somehow everybody is a cousin, a classmate, or a hybrid of the two. The park children clamour for candied fruits; a migrant sells rooster with glowing green eyes that will, if you do not suppress it, crow for a full minute.

Already!— the round of New Year’s visits. The women cook all day and the men smoke and eat sunflower seeds and young people sit in the other room and play on their phones or watch replays of the patriotic highlights and homages to mothers and soldiers from the New Year’s Gala. Then they eat, always too much, religiously too much. The parents sit on the furniture, in the half-dark, and discuss the marriageability, job prospects, and weights of one another’s progeny. Tingting has been to France and come back, they think, with some kind of degree, or certificate; they grant her leeway. At least France is not a country that makes fat. But in a month of her two her immunity will wear off. One or two of the aunts is preparing a comment, perhaps for next year, about how the make-up can no longer quite mask the crow’s-eye, the droop. Twenty-six in autumn.

New Year’s brings the man. The first time she meets Peng again, they arrange to go to the bakery that Koreans have opened, with the stickers of the Eiffel tower on the coffee-bean wallpaper. He knows the chain from Shanghai; he has familiar objects to order. Tingting doesn’t bother saying that it is not like in France; it is understood. But it is the most Parisian thing Yangang has to offer, and Peng was polite to pay this homage.

Their conversation is awkward, tetchy. They ask about each other’s parents, but everybody is fine, there is so little say. Peng’s cousin is to be married. Yuli is to be married. Quiet girls in their class that they didn’t know or like are to be married.

But then, in a pinch, it turns out that Tingting’s aunt is sick; it is a serious disease, not as serious as cancer, but she has forgotten the name. Oh yes it is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Tingting has not forgotten after all. The aunt lives on the fifth floor, and wheezes on the stairs. Peng is surprised to learn from Tingting that French apartments on the fifth-floor might also have no elevator, or only a very small one. Tingting remarks, a little professionally, that is not clear whether the aunt will have to be moved. The air in the countryside is also no longer, etc.

Peng attempts a joke about everyone having to move, by which he means to hint at mortality, which ought to come back to age and therefore love, but Tingting understands him to mean that all the buildings are always being torn down and that he is alluding to his relative security in his Shanghai apartment, which is only seven years old. A three-legged dog passes the window and they agree that it is to be pitied.

They understand each other poorly, which is as it should be, but eventually, awkwardly, the opening generated by allusion, confusion, interpretation permits Tingting to ask him about girls, how his life with girls is progressing, but Peng murmuringly disavows girls, it is not clear whether as a subject or as the object. She presses; he begins to mumble about Shanghai girls, he stutters to a stop. This was perhaps the declaration; she cannot tell. Tingting says, in the name of freedom but accusingly, that she had told him not to think of her; not to miss her—she, in Paris, had not waited for him, or thought of him too much. She thought she had made this very clear. No missing was to be permitted; certainly none to be logged as virtue.

He agrees, meekly, meekly, that she made this very clear, but a man cannot help himself, which objectively speaking sounds like compulsive self-satisfaction but is interpreted by both, for reasons of decency, as romance.

For what it matters, she is not bluffing. Tingting, or at least Caroline, has a creditable experience of French men. Several kinds. Some of them had intruded, become memorable or at least nude. They were always telling her how something she was for a Chinese girl—elegant, tall, good at rolling the French r; they conceived of compliments as distinction among a gallery of Chinese girls, most of them fantastical, with whom she understood herself to be competing.

One such Frenchman, Christian, had of course claimed to be a Buddhist, she thought it was meant to explain his failure to text or show up on time, rudeness gussied up as transience. The world was changeable, Christian told her, especially the self. He expected her to understand and perhaps his reason for vanishing was that it was necessary for the illusion of Christian to dissolve once he was truly understood. In any event, there is something to be said for the dispersal of some men.

She tries now to explain to Peng how French people, for (at present she had digested them and they can be processed and generalized en masse) always seemed to have a chessboard in front of them, to have many chessboards in front of them, always making moves in a game which wavered between downright seduction, mere possibility and the faintest tinges of suggestion. Not everybody cared whether they won; often there were no stakes. But everybody played, constantly, as though this were the business of life, and this made them joyful, confused, incessantly talkative—it furnished their movies and their television and their songs and their imaginations. It was hopelessly complex and also perversely single-minded, but it lent a tension, not always unpleasant, to the act of buying a croque-monsieur from a baker, or sharing a seat on a bus—even with an older gentleman, or a teenage girl. Of course, Tingting opines, eroticism is being slowly criminalized and it promises to be a bad century for the French. But for now it is still in the air. Peng nods, trying to look grave.

And she has learnt things from them. Tristan, for instance, taught her to mix café nihilism with pleasure; how to skip classes with insouciance, even panache; how to make use of one another within the bounds of morality. If she had understood Tristan correctly, the self was incapable of truly apprehending the other—and for this reason one could only appear to solicit consent and mutuality from the other being, the beloved (there was something in here about virgins and prostitutes)—but it could not actually understand an alien humanity. Therefore humans had no choice but treat each other as tools to whom they attributed, intellectually, realization—but without access to the realization, without feedback from the other. When comprehensible she found his ideas idiotic, but she enjoyed the consequences, and the sense of perceiving the foolishness at the heart of all his lofty abstraction, and even the delicious pain she could inflict on him with the merest breath of mockery, perceived momentarily before his natural arrogance once again took him in hand.

On the earthly plane, she understood that with Tristan, too, there would be body and metaphor but very little, for instance, marriage. And all around her were Chinese women and their French boyfriends who refused to help them get status. It seemed that a fear of religion had destroyed the men’s sense of responsibility. Whereas Chineseness seemed to soldier blindly through, across belief. She was young enough to like it, to like them, to accept pleasure and friendship inconsequentially. She had known she was a bad girl, and a modern woman, and French men were apparently placed within reach for no better reason than to prove it.

Peng is listening politely. Purity is a laughable, faraway, television thing; and he quite agrees that European men, as Tingting is saying, do not partake of reality. He feigns concern at her exploits; that is the least he could do for her. They part with him telling her that he will have to think over all she has told him. He does concern, doubt, and disillusion rather well.

In good time the school will send her parents a letter of expulsion in French; she will have told them it was a commendation. Of course, by then, she will need no certificates.

It is the second time they meet, Peng and she, to which we now turn our attention. A week later, perhaps; actually six days, as either one could have told you instantly. It is a sushi restaurant, and none of their parents’ generation is likely to have their moles in here, so she allows herself a Kirin and imposes a Kirin on him too; and, do you know what?, she is imagining the ridge of his muscle, she has forgotten its name, the one that holds the thigh together. She applies a little bit of pressure under the table to his front toe, because otherwise he will continue to act too maidenly.

The toe pressure does its work, because she is able to take him, though he smells of that orange Japanese fish egg stuff, back to the traveller’s hotel, the one run by the train station. The same room—the same bank card that her father never queries and which fills up with money from some subterranean source—even the same discreet out-of-towner at the desk, aged more since last time than was reasonable. Poor people from the provinces are safe, they can be told anything, they are so hopelessly unconnected, and therefore have no access to the determinations of truth, even when they have the facts.

He wants the lights off but she has dispensed with this decorum, she tells him that this is a custom she has unlearnt in France. He makes no objection; he says very little anymore. He is not averse to experiments in style. If she insists on it, Tingting will be captured by means of what she calls her liberation.

Too late, in too deep, she grows concerned by the smile on his face, the beatitude, the triumph which is male bliss even when the woman has done all the work. Of course, she cannot be sure, because she is right up against him and half turned away from him, too close to see him and not at the kind of angle that allows expressions to be properly interpreted. But he is feverish with sleep and she can feel the smugness radiating off his bare skin.

Ah, but he takes her to the breakfast place they used to go to, he shows sign of a will reviving, and it is the congee with the pickled vegetables and the divine fried dough. The fried dough, he tells her, as he has told her on three previous occasions (one of them at this very table) is a reminder of the traitor to the Chinese people and his wife, who are bound together in this spiral and fried forever for opening the capital to the Mongol hordes.

Tingting says it looks like a spiral of DNA. She wants to be pleasant, but doesn’t know how to handle the fact that he is still too greatly pleased, too obviously satisfied. Defensively, she talks about going to France again, perhaps she will do another degree.

Although the congee looks very good, he looks suitably downcast at this. She remarks that perhaps China could use another Mongol horde. He laughs and tells her a story about a camel tour his colleagues made in Inner Mongolia and he shows her a picture they have sent him on WeChat with a yurt replica. With this distraction, with this dismissal of any last-ditch escape she might design, Peng has squelched Tristan and Christian—snuffed them out— has suffocated France.

She is driven to take him to the hotel a few more times; she is sure that it is not a revenge. Perhaps she can in some way break him? Or if it is a vengeance, it is not against him. In fact, she is very sure that it is carefree, and shows a healthy interest in life, and demonstrates that she is in control of her body and her destiny.

But she can glimpse it now, sometimes, before she wriggles out of his arms: every repetition of the act grants Peng another layer of security, she senses that he believes that things will turn out alright now, in the social sense, that she has come around, come back. It is that post-coital male satisfaction, that fantasy of taming, that illusion of ownership that the best of them cannot disguise. Surely this is how all the stories of werewolves come from—the revelations on the face, through the body, during the act, in the wake of it. And the guilty men, feeling their power, translate their own possession into fairy tales about snake-women and fox-girls.

And so on the seventh morning, when he comes up behind her to join her in admiring herself in the mirror, she says, you know that this is just for fun, right?

            He smiles, bashful in his boxers, and assents to the fact of the fun.

She goes on: We’re both adults, right? It doesn’t mean anything. I mean it’s nice, but it’s not…enduring.

He asks whether she wants him to hold back for longer before—

No, what I mean is: all this, it doesn’t mean we’re back together. We both have our freedoms, right? I mean, I’m glad that China has progressed, in our generation. But we aren’t built for marriage. That goes without saying.   

            He gives the grunt which is reaction, acknowledgment, agreement, and dissent. He sits on the edge of the bed; then reaches for his phone. He begins to play Lost Planet: Devolution a game which has only recently come out for Androids, and which he downloaded yesterday when he went to the bathroom at 2 am. This sulky intentness is the expression she hates most about him, and it makes it easier for her to concentrate on delivering the message.

If I had known you were so immature, she murmurs. I would have.

            But he laughs, not exactly at her. Nevertheless, she has figured it out.

It is in the order of things for Yuli to be the first to congratulate her; they arrange to have their weddings two weeks apart; close enough together that they can share and maybe disperse some of the planning stress.

Her father is not especially pleased with Peng—rumours have reached him— but the boy’s family will pay for the wedding and of course there is the Shanghai apartment; and so Peng is technically unexceptionable.

The invitation sits in Tristan’s WeChat forever, unread, because he drops his cell phone in the Rhone accidentally, when he and a girl and another couple take the Marne canal down to near Strasbourg. He is going through a technocratic phase, and never, until his death at 57 in a mountain-climbing accident, will he download WeChat again. Pauline sends her congratulations, three weeks after the message is sent, but does not mention coming. And Christian has reached anatta; understandably, since he no longer has any Self, he cannot be expected to reply to wedding invites.

And, unless I am mistaken, or lying, a mere seventy years later an engineering student in Padua is saying to her girlfriend—yeah, she even had a French guy, then, before the war, before she married my grandpa—with the lung disease, you remember? But she was herself always so healthy. She used to try to pull up the pictures on this old gadget she had, and I could never explain to her that they were all inconvertible now—you should have seen the phones then, they were as big as your hand. I never understood her much; she’d forgotten all her French, and my Chinese is hopeless. I would have liked to say goodbye, but she died right in the middle of exams, and you can’t even get a visa that quick. 

Furthermore, it is my understanding that there are various man-made satellites which orbit the earth and then burn up in the atmosphere upon reentry, on account of friction or speed or various astrophysical variables which you can look up if you so choose or which perhaps you know already. Sometimes they fail to burn up entirely and hit the earth. But since Earth is mostly water, desert, taiga and ice, very rarely is anyone harmed, and even if they were they would have to be very isolated, disconnected people to be hit individually, so if anyone actually were hurt or killed by a reentry likely we would never hear about it.

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