Saturday, December 2nd, 2006
by Elizabeth Koch
Our trip begins the same way that our relationship began, six months earlier. Bickering.
“Come on, I want to have fun!” Todd moans an hour into our flight to Shanghai. He bites my arm. I slap him.
“You don’t know how to manage your time.” He pouts, and flips open his Game Boy. He’s right, which infuriates me. I should have wrapped up this interview for Opium, the magazine that Todd founded, days ago. Todd is finished with his Opium responsibilities. This infuriates me, too.
When we land, Todd insists on carrying my bags even though I ignored him the entire 14-hour flight. The sky is dark and thick with dust or something lighter, something more sparkly, like glitter. I race ahead of him and attempt to cross the street at a pedestrian walkway.
“Wait!” Todd shouts. Three Hondas whoosh past without braking. Todd appears at my side, takes hold of my elbow. “You have to be careful. There are no laws here.”
Stereotypes may be dull, nattering things, but sometimes we must address them. The ride from the airport to our host’s home is like being kidnapped by a madman on the run from the Red Army. It should be duplicated and set in an amusement park in Kentucky. Our driver weaves across the four-lane highway with no regard whatsoever for those little white lines that designate lanes in most countries. The strangest part is that the other drivers he bumps don’t seem much bothered. No one honks; no one rolls down his window and screams Chinese obscenities. This place is very odd.
We stop at a light, and a white mini-van brimming with teenagers pulls up beside us. They smile. I wave. They laugh and laugh.
Todd takes my hand and points to the skyline on either side of the highway. “No two skyscrapers look alike here. It’s a law.”
“No sensible laws. Look!” The buildings tower over us like a harem of old ladies with spooky, misshapen hats.
Our hosts’ home is tucked into a cul-de-sac with a gate and an armed guard. Next door is a rec center with an Olympic-sized pool and tennis courts and a ballroom for conventions and a winding garden out back with tiny bridges and ducks. This is not your grandmother’s cul-de-sac. I feel awkward staying with Todd’s friends, John and Sue Leary, because John is part of the original Opium clan. Todd made me his partner shortly after we met, four years after he launched the magazine online, and I’m well aware that Opium is and will always be Todd’s brand. I’m insecure about this, about the overwhelming closeness of living with him and co-editing his magazine. When it comes to Opium, I feel hidden in Todd’s shadow, no matter where I stand. I am much too interested in credit. I’m trying to get over it.
John is an American expat lawyer, out of town on business until Tuesday. Today is Sunday. His wife and two daughters are standing on the brick steps, waiting for us. Sue is petite, blond and pale, sunny and skittish. She runs out to buy dinner minutes after we arrive. Madeline is ten. She takes Todd to the TV room to watch an early World Cup game. Madeline’s shirt is red, with a grinning monkey plastered across the front.
“I have that shirt,” I say.
She looks at me strangely. She is right. I am too old to own a red monkey shirt. Isabella is seven and stares at Todd and me with appropriate skepticism. While Sue is gone, I wander around the house, poking at Communist kitsch — a porcelain head of General Mao, posters of People’s Party tanks, giant red umbrellas. I fantasize about getting lost in the gardens out back and stumbling into a private Communist meeting, where I will be shot on the spot.
Sue returns and we eat dumplings and drink beer, and Todd and I eventually stumble into bed, deranged with exhaustion. Todd sets the alarm for 2 a.m. so he can watch the World Cup. Todd insists that he’s going to watch every game the entire trip. I’m too tired to care.
The next day Sue and the girls take us to lunch at a place called Water Dripping Down a Cave. Sue orders four dishes of burnt vegetables and spicy green peppers floating in a bubbling bowl of grease. I am thirsty, so thirsty I hope I don’t have to talk because I don’t want the little moisture on my tongue to evaporate.
When the water arrives, Todd and the girls are playing a game called “pick up the cashews” with chopsticks. He knocks over my glass and delicious water splashes across my lap. I want to rub his face in the oil and MSG until he gets hives and suffocates. He is not allowed to be clumsy when I am dependent on him and his friends. He is not allowed to make mistakes when I have no idea what we are doing because he mapped out the entire trip from beginning to end because planning is not my forte. My forte is stomping away when Todd and I fight. That is the power I wield in the relationship, and here I cannot walk away. I must stay by his side and make things work. I am embarrassed to admit that I’m not used to such sacrifice. I do not show my unreasonable anger because Sue is watching my reaction, and I want people to think I’m charming and tolerant in spite of considerable proof otherwise.
“Where’s the restroom?” I ask sweetly.
“I’ll take you!” the girls shout.
They show me my options: an Eastern toilet — a wooden plank with a hole in the middle — and a “Western” toilet — a ceramic dog bowl with a hole in the bottom. These holes are not very large. I’m surprised that such fat cockroaches can fit through them, but there they are.
“You can flush the Western one,” Madeline says with a hand over her nose. She points to a chain hanging from the ceiling.
After lunch Sue and the girls walk us through the French Concession, a richly Europeanized shopping district lined with bumpy trees that fan and shiver over brick-lined streets. We pass glass boutiques with expensive looking things in tiny sizes. Sue stops and points down the road.
“There’s XiangYang market,” she says.
“You’re not coming?”
Madeline shakes her head no, looking panicked. “We’ve got to get going,” Sue says, running her fingers through Madeline’s hair, which seems to calm her. “We’ll see you guys tonight, okay?”
It takes two minutes to understand. The XiangYang market is a madhouse. Todd and I are skinny and jet-lagged and no doubt appear weak-willed to the hundreds of street venders who rush at us with knock-off sunglasses and Chanel purses and an endless assortment of belts.
“No no, we just came from America,” I say.
“America!” a woman squeals, and holds a Tommy Hilfiger t-shirt over Todd’s chest.
The energy here, and in Shanghai generally, is overwhelming. Shanghai has experienced staggering growth since the Chinese government relaxed the economic stranglehold on its borders and welcomed freer markets. The excitement here is so tremendous it doesn’t feel quite real. The cartoony smiles are both ecstatic and strained, the colors too bright, like a Wizard of Oz movie set. Anxiety seems to be the driving force, like any minute the Communist boot could drop and smash their newfound wealth to smithereens. Quick, buy some plastic pearl earrings before we all wake up.
Todd finds some cheap ties with Mandarin lettering. He wants to pick out a few for his friends.
“How about this one?” I ask.
He winces. “I hate gold.”
“That’s not gold. That’s yellow.”
“It’s sparkly. It’s gold.”
“That’s so yellow it’s a fruit. That is banana-yellow, my friend.”
My face starts to itch. I remember the time I worked in DC and ate Pho soup for lunch. After two sips my face and hands swelled up and I had to lie down in the parking lot.
“I think I’m having an MSG reaction,” I say.
“Shit,” from Todd. He grabs my elbow with one hand and a map with the other. “There’s a park right over there.” He points.
The Fuxing park is beautiful, watery and green, canopied with huge, knotty trees that dwarf the old men practicing tai chi beneath them. I stagger toward a tree and hug it. I watch the old men in their purple socks throw their legs over railings and slap their muscles awake. Todd leads me to a bench.
“You’re pissed at me,” he says.
I don’t answer.
“Why do you stay so mad for so long? Why can’t you just remember what matters?”
“I’m a hater,” I say.
“No you’re not. You want to be, but you’re not.”
Sue takes us to Karaoke that night, where her daughters sing “I’m a Barbie Girl” and shake their hips with eerie precociousness. After, we head to an outdoor sports bar in the French Concession. Todd and Madeline sit in plastic chairs and watch the game. Sue and I talk.
“Where’s Isabella?” I ask after some time.
“Oh,” Sue sips her beer and waves her hand around.
“I’ll go check on her,” I say.
I find Isabella in the tiny playground in the back of the patio. The sky is pitch black, and Isabella looks like a shadow, her tennis shoes glowing white as she races back and forth across a wooden bridge. I follow her inside a treehouse. There’s a television in there, and it works. I change the channel to the game, Germany vs. Poland, the same game that’s playing outside. I don’t want to be outside, with the expats who know much more about soccer, and tolerance, than I do. The bugs are thick and we slap them off us. I worry that I am timid and strange to be hiding in an oversized dollhouse with a six-year-old in Shanghai. I wonder if Todd notices that I am gone. Isabella shifts, and I worry that she will leave me. She puts her hand in mine. Her palm is sticky, and I am grateful.
The next day Sue and the girls are gone, on a plane to California to visit Sue’s family. John arrives early afternoon and when I hug him hello, he stiffens.
There is time before dinner, so Todd and I go to the Chinese market in the Old City. This market is indoors, and laid out in aisles of green bins thick with options — dried fruits and nuts; balls of tiny metallic fish squirming and swishing their tales; huge salmon with their mouths propped open, fat tongues swollen and bruised.
“Touch it!” Todd shouts.
I touch it.
A few men with purple eyelids shuffle through the market in their pajamas, like they just stumbled out of bed, or an Opium den. Todd squats next to one relaxing in a lawn chair and I take a picture.
The man smiles and he’s toothless. He gives the camera a thumbs-up.
We walk down an alley where things get sketchier. Grumpy-faced men stand beside dilapidated shacks, motioning towards metal scales with livers and hearts laid across them. Flies swarm. We pass a shed with Peking ducks strung across the front like Christmas lights.
Todd nudges me. “Got your Peking Ducks in a row?” I find this hilarious.
We turn a corner and run into a group of guys with slicked-back hair and Vietnam-era pants and leather sandals. Their t-shirts are hiked in their armpits. Their tummies pouch out menacingly and they rub them.
“What are these guys,” I whisper, “Shanghai gangsters?”
“I think they’re just hot.”
It was hot, about 38 degrees Celsius, 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and so sticky humid Todd’s eyes begin to swell. But there’s something confrontational about the way these men flaunt their stomachs, something vulgar and lewd, like garter belts with no underwear. The tallest one stares at me hard with his lip curled. We turn the corner quickly.
“I think that guy wanted to ask you to dim sum,” Todd says.
That night John Leary joins us for dinner. He tells us he’s pretty sick, that he’s caught a virus in his ear.
“Are you going to go deaf?” I ask.
“Elizabeth,” Todd moans.
Our dinners arrive foamed. I’m too hungry for foam. Todd and John talk about their books –Todd has just finished his novel — and I wave the bread lady over and ask for three rolls. She does not understand.
“In my book…,” Todd says for the fifth time in three minutes. I hate it when Todd does this, talks about his writing nonstop, about his characters as if they’re real people we should all get to know. I call it bragging, and beat him up about it all the time, but in truth I am jealous of his confidence, of his ability to just write for the sheer pleasure of it, when I slap down every thought, every image, that flutters through my head. I am jealous of Todd’s ability to simply get shit done. I think about Opium, how he ran it alone for five years online while holding down a full time job, how he turned out two print issues with hardly any help. And I think of what I have done in the last decade: quit five jobs in publishing and magazines, shelved a quasi memoir of navel-grazing trash, and dabbled in freelance journalism for six months before I quit that too. I have no business disparaging Todd for anything. This makes me even angrier, and more depressed. I say nothing for the rest of dinner, and nothing on the way home.
“I wish you’d communicate.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“I think you do,” he says.
That night he wakes up again to watch the game. I lie in bed listening to the fan, noticing his absence, wishing he’d come back to me.
NEXT UP: Beijing!