The World of Chinese - - Contents - - TRANS­LATED BY MOY HAU (梅皓

It's not easy to love your neigh­bor—and al­most im­pos­si­ble in Beijing, where rents run high and tem­pers short. In this short story set in an over­crowded apart­ment, a group of house­mates dis­cover that you can share a bath­room, meals, and strug­gles, and still re­main strangers

Af­ter Mr. Lou moved in, the apart­ment was full.

The east-fac­ing room, where a cou­ple named Duan lived, was the largest. The wife was preg­nant. Duan kept say­ing he was go­ing to move out, that the en­vi­ron­ment his child would grow up in was so im­por­tant, that we lived in shared hous­ing, it’s so crowded, any child who grew up here was go­ing to be a sissy.

But he’d been talk­ing about it for six months and still hadn’t moved. The wife got laid off; she was full­time preg­nant. With the lit­tle money Duan earned, once you sub­tract the rent, there was barely enough for milk pow­der; how would he get funds for an­other apart­ment? There were two small south-fac­ing rooms. I live in one, di­vorced, sin­gle. I was an early bird and still no worm—mar­ried at 22, a su­per-left­over lady at 30. I’m even more left­over than left­overs, with no chil­dren but a record. Though it’s not quite a “dis­grace­ful past,” I still can’t com­pete with those nor­mal women get­ting mar­ried for the first time.

I play the face game. Though I’m just get­ting by as a den­tal hy­gien­ist—hold­ing the vac­uum wand to siphon away pa­tients’ saliva, hand­ing the den­tist the pli­ers, or drill, or what­ever—i tell peo­ple that I “do surgery.” In the med­i­cal field, sur­geons have the most pres­tige, and I have to have some face. It’s im­por­tant in a big city, where peo­ple want to look at you and see a shiny sur­face. “Oh, Hu Mingzhu, she’s do­ing al­right: nice job, good looks, good char­ac­ter.” Those are my bar­gain­ing chips for re-mar­riage.

In the room next to me was a mid­dle-aged woman of about 50, sur­name Men. I heard that she ac­com­pa­nied her daugh­ter here dur­ing her school years. Now her daugh­ter’s mar­ried a rich lo­cal, but “Aunt Men” hasn’t moved in with the in-laws. She’d like to have all the gen­er­a­tions un­der one roof, but their apart­ment is small and she’s ashamed to ask. She’d like to be an in­volved grand­mother, but it’s not that easy; oh no, it isn’t that easy. The in-laws want to care for the baby, so where would Men fit in? So now, the old woman thinks, maybe she could find a part­ner, some­one sim­ple, as long as he had an apart­ment and was healthy. She was afraid they’d look down on her, so she’d been work­ing hard at learn­ing to do her makeup. Some­times she’d ask me this or that: How to do her eye­liner, the dif­fer­ence be­tween foun­da­tion and face pow­der, whether or not she should use primer on top of BB cream, and the like. Although when it came to makeup I was merely a dab­bler, I was flat­tered to be asked, de­spite the in­con­ve­nience.

At 8:30 at night, Aunt Men burst into my room with­out knock­ing. I was do­ing a mois­tur­is­ing mask, and my face was cov­ered in green mud. “Ah, Mingzhu.” Now she was sit­ting on my bed, grip­ping my hand. “What’s that new guy’s back­ground? Who found him?”

As I al­ways did in th­ese sit­u­a­tions, I closed my eyes and pursed my lips. I was afraid of wrin­kles. “He said the guy here be­fore, Zhang, found him, since he had to move in a hurry. So he hooked Lou up with us to fill his place. He pays 1,500 RMB a month, which is de­cent.” Aunt Men paused for a sec­ond. “What is his name? Where is he from? How old is he? What does he do? Have you asked him th­ese things?”

With my eyes closed, I had no idea what ex­pres­sion she wore, but her eye­brows were prob­a­bly raised and lips pursed with great ef­fort, ready to con­front class en­e­mies. I wanted to say,


old lady, why do you care? As long as he pays rent on time, doesn’t have any in­fec­tious dis­eases, doesn’t break the law, why the hell do you care what he does? Are you run­ning a cen­sus? I had, how­ever, to main­tain good re­la­tions be­tween those I lived with, so all I could say was “I hear he’s a de­cent guy, and doesn’t seem like a crim­i­nal from the looks of him.”

Aunt Men saw me open my eyes, and scooted closer, of­fer­ing her opin­ion: “One can’t judge a man by his looks! How can we know what lurks in his heart?” OK, OK. As a

1 man can­not be known by his looks, so the sea can­not be mea­sured by a bucket. Well, no mat­ter what, Lou seemed to be a de­cent guy with his things in or­der. On his sec­ond day, he in­vited us out for din­ner: Han Li Xuan Bar­be­cue—not high-end, but a nice ges­ture. Aunt Men, Duan, and the wife had about 30 plates of streaky pork, ba­con, beef, and chicken, grilling Lou the whole time. His full name was Lou Qingbo, 28 (though he looked younger, maybe 23 or 24, clean with a small face). He held a mas­ter’s de­gree (not sure from ex­actly where, but it was in Beijing). He was from Zhe­jiang, and worked for some com­pany (not clear if state-run, multi­na­tional, or pri­vate). He made about 5,000 RMB a month, and was sin­gle.

Dur­ing the en­tire meal, Luo more or less just an­swered ques­tions, not hav­ing much else to say. He liked to keep his gaze low, and would oc­ca­sion­ally smile shyly. Aunt Men and Duan’s wife were the op­po­site, maybe as the meat and al­co­hol had set them alight. They’d sud­denly burst out laugh­ing. Thank­fully the restau­rant was noisy, or Duan would have died with em­bar­rass­ment. When­ever things be­gan reach­ing a crit­i­cal point, Lou would raise his glass, and Duan’s shame would melt away.

Ev­ery­one had to ad­mit Lou’s mov­ing in eased our eco­nomic bur­den. Each of us had to pay at least 350 less per month in rent and, we all quickly dis­cov­ered, he was quite gen­er­ous. For in­stance, at Christ­mas, his com­pany gave out a large box of Jiangxi or­anges, which he put in the com­mon area, telling ev­ery­one to take as many as they wanted. They ac­tu­ally did: Aunt Men took a few good ki­los when she went to see her daugh­ter, and Duan’s wife, at home all the day, would take one to her room when­ever she felt like it. Of course it was “for the baby, who needed Vi­ta­min C.” I didn’t get to have a sin­gle one be­fore they were all gone.

Lou didn’t seem to mind. At New Year’s, he bought gluti­nous rice balls, which ev­ery­one was more than happy to ac­cept. He rarely ini­ti­ated con­ver­sa­tion, mak­ing a bee­line for his room when he got home. The only time he made an ap­pear­ance was for din­ner. He liked to watch en­ter­tain­ment shows on TV, stand­ing casually in front of the set, bowl of noo­dles in hands, laugh­ing as he ate. When he’d fin­ished, he’d head straight back into his room. I didn’t know what he was do­ing in there; only that the light seep­ing from the crack un­der his door was ex­tin­guished quite late at night.

Things were calm enough. The New Year came and went, and Duan’s wife’s belly con­tin­ued to swell. She lay around all day, never go­ing out, fan­ta­siz­ing about how the child was go­ing to do great things and make her proud. I was still sin­gle, and so was Aunt Men. She was worse off than me; the old bach­e­lors scorned her lack of house or Beijing res­i­dence per­mit. I was look­ing in the mir­ror, draw­ing on my stupidly thin eye­brows, when she barged in, mum­bling how sorry she was, but she just couldn’t hold it any­more, re­mov­ing her trousers as she ran. As soon as her rear touched the toi­let seat, I heard a lit­tle wa­ter­fall. I fur­rowed my brow and stared into the mir­ror; I wasn’t on good enough terms with this woman to have to lis­ten to her pee.

I looked at her through the mir­ror. She was wear­ing makeup—red lip­stick, eye­brows drawn on a bit crooked, and she even con­toured her nose! What decade was this look from? Not a good way to make an im­pres­sion with your date. “Mingzhu, Aun­tie is some­one who has ex­pe­ri­ence. Work shouldn’t be your pri­mary con­cern—you have to seize the op­por­tu­nity, find a good per­son to marry. Don’t end up like me, old and passed over. Just think of the choices I had back then!” Aunt Men was lost in her mem­o­ries; she didn’t know I was di­vorced. “OK, I get it!” I couldn’t help but cut her off. “Of course, there’s al­ways an el­e­ment of luck.”

“Some­times you have to make your own luck,” Aunt Men dou­bled down. “Look at Fan Bing­bing, and all that’s she’s done.” I didn’t know what to make of all this non­sense. Aunt Men con­tin­ued: “If you gotta



seize op­por­tu­ni­ties. If there aren’t any op­por­tu­ni­ties, make one.” “An op­por­tu­nity?” I asked. Men smirked. “I think you and Lou are a good match.” Me and Lou? Never thought of it. We were hardly close; I’d spo­ken less than 10 sen­tences to him. We both left in the morn­ing, came home at night, did our own things, went our own ways. Still, from what my first mar­riage taught me, I thought Lou may be quite a re­li­able guy: straight­for­ward, not overly talk­a­tive, a doer.

How­ever, I hadn’t har­bored any de­sire for more con­tact with him. I’d had a boyfriend, a Tai­wanese guy, also for­merly mar­ried. He was older, but I felt I had to be prac­ti­cal at my age. Based on my ob­ser­va­tions, Lou’s love life was also calm and un­event­ful.

At the Spring Fes­ti­val, on the 29th day of the last lu­nar month, I opened the door and saw that Lou stand­ing in the com­mon area, a bowl of in­stant noo­dles in his hand. He wasn’t smil­ing, and I made a few quick guesses. Aunt Men and the Duan cou­ple had al­ready re­turned to their home­towns, and even Mr. Tai­wan had gone back to his lit­tle is­land. I took off my heels and put down my bag, putting on a non­cha­lant air: “Oh, so you didn’t go home?” Lou turned his head to­wards me, a half a noo­dle still hang­ing from his mouth. “No.” I sud­denly felt em­bold­ened, and joked: “Well, that’s great! I’m not go­ing back ei­ther, so we can spend the fes­ti­val to­gether.” Lou spoke: “That...that’s not nec­es­sary.” I felt I’d said the wrong thing. “I didn’t mean it that way.” I laughed and re­turned to my room with­out an­other word.

This guy was just pre­tend­ing, even with me. It’s the Spring Fes­ti­val and he’s not go­ing back. We all know what that’s about—you don’t want to deal with your rel­a­tives, push­ing you to get mar­ried, and your friends ask­ing you how much you make in Beijing, if you have an apart­ment, a car, and a mar­riage li­cense; the kids are like a swarm of lo­custs, ev­ery­one pil­ing it on ev­ery­one. OK then, we’ll do our own thing. I can have my own Spring Fes­ti­val. The next day, Lou wasn’t home. My ex-hus­band called, try­ing to pro­voke me. He knew I wasn’t go­ing home and I snapped, “Don’t bother me and my boyfriend!” My ex was get­ting ready to say some­thing, but I sav­agely smashed the “end call” but­ton. I wanted to cry but couldn’t, be­cause I was also quite hungry. I had to go buy some dumplings, but the su­per­mar­ket was closed. Then I re­mem­bered that, not far from my build­ing, there was a 24hour con­ve­nience store.

As I headed back with a bag of pork and cab­bage dumplings, my mother called. She didn’t know about the di­vorce, and asked how Spring Fes­ti­val was at my in-laws’. I held back tears, say­ing we’d just fin­ished eat­ing and ev­ery­one was hav­ing a blast. “Hey, lis­ten, they’re set­ting off fire­crack­ers out­side.” As I spoke, I started to cry. I wanted to go home, any­where, even if it was just some ran­dom rented apart­ment. I started to pre­pare the dumplings—if I couldn’t fin­ish them all, well, then I couldn’t. En­veloped in a cloud of white steam, I heard Lou come back. “Let’s eat to­gether!” I stayed up­beat.

This time, Lou hu­mored me, and walked into the kitchen, help­ing me pour cold water into the wok. “Add cold water three times, and they’ll be done.” “Well, the man of m—” I re­al­ized I said too much, and cut my­self off and smiled, “I mean, my father, he al­ways said you had to add water like this.” Lou didn’t say any­thing. I saw that his eyes were a bit red, and hur­riedly asked, “Is the steam get­ting in your eyes? Stand far­ther away.” My friendly lit­tle lie helped ease the dis­com­fort. Lou as­sured me that it was noth­ing, that he was just touched. Touched? I started at him, but didn’t know where to start. “At this time, at this place, who else can be there for me, huh?” My eyes felt a lit­tle wet too, and couldn’t help but open up. “Ac­tu­ally, please don’t tell any­one, but I’ve been mar­ried and di­vorced.” Lou looked at me, al­most smil­ing through tears, and said: “Who cares? Isn’t that in the past?” I asked him: “What about you?” He laughed bit­terly. “Me? My story is so bland, it’s not even worth telling.”

OK, if you don’t want to talk about it, I won’t ask. The world is bound­less. Me, a su­per-left­over woman of 30, and a young man who couldn’t re­turn home for the lu­nar new year, a lonely non-cou­ple, eat­ing dumplings to­gether as if noth­ing was amiss, and skip­ping CCTV’S Spring Fes­ti­val Gala, in­stead watch­ing a su­per-lame film, The Amaz­ing Spi­derMan, to­gether. I’d seen it be­fore but this time it didn’t seem so bad, maybe be­cause the pre­vi­ous time I’d seen it alone. It turns out, what I’m most afraid of is be­ing alone.

In the blink of an eye, we were all back at work. Like crows on tree branches on the side of the road in win­ter, the Duans ap­peared right on time. Aunt Men came back two days later. I picked up the vac­uum wand again, and stood by the den­tist, si­phon­ing pa­tients’ saliva. Some­times when I wasn’t in a great mood, I’d cling to the tiny bit of power I had, chastis­ing our pa­tients: From now on you can’t speak, just nod your head.

Be care­ful not to choke on your spit. Ah, that was just how life was. Most of the time, other peo­ple step on you, so some­times you just have to do a tiny bit of step­ping your­self.

Not long af­ter, Lou sud­denly bought a dog, a white Bi­chon Frise. Even though it looked obe­di­ent, play­ful, and cute, when Aunt Men came in, it started to bark. At night, when Lou just got back, Aunt Men pressed him into a chair. I sat by the din­ing ta­ble, while Aunt Men and the Duan cou­ple watched from the sofa.

Lou asked Aunt Men what was up, and she, still sim­il­ing, point­ing at Duan’s wife’s belly. “Now, Lou, we all live to­gether; you can’t be too self­ish.” Lou’s face sud­denly red­dened as he sat un­der the flu­o­res­cent light, his neck il­lu­mi­nated as he low­ered his head. He cer­tainly didn’t look like a boss. Duan’s wife spoke: “Lou, so sorry, it’s not that you can’t have a dog, but look at my belly, look how large it is. I don’t mind, but I’m wor­ried that once the baby’s born, some­thing will go wrong with the dog. How would I face my hus­band’s fam­ily?” Duan didn’t say any­thing, but thumbed a cig­a­rette out the packet which his wife then reached over and smacked away. I un­der­stood Lou’s po­si­tion. He was lonely, and a dog would help him, and maybe he saw a bit of him­self in the lit­tle Bi­chon, also alone in a big city with no­body to rely on—at least they’d have each other.

I cleared my throat: “I’m not a huge fan of hav­ing a dog liv­ing here, but you’re go­ing to have the kid soon, so I don’t think it’ll be a prob­lem. Peo­ple say dogs are un­clean, but I’ve watched it a few days and I think this Bi­chon is fine, it al­ways does its busi­ness in that coal box; let’s let Lou keep it a few more days and ob­serve.” Lou spoke halt­ingly: “It’s a good dog, it lis­tens to me.”

Duan slammed his cig­a­rettes on the ta­ble. “If any­one’s go­ing to be ob­serv­ing, it’s you. We’re not ob­serv­ing. If it barks at night, what can we do? My wife won’t be able to sleep; how can she have a good child this way? Your room is right in the mid­dle of the apart­ment, any­thing that hap­pens there af­fects all of us.”

Just then the Bi­chon Frise ran out, shak­ing its fluffy tail, its wa­tery eyes peer­ing out of its fur. It looked pa­thetic. I felt sorry for it. “How about Lou and I switch rooms? I’m on the out­side, and even if the dog makes some noise, it won’t dis­turb your wife, or you. Aunt Men, Lou can give you 200 RMB a month as a clean­ing fee, so that you don’t have to worry.”

As soon as she heard there was money to be made, Aunt Men agreed. The ma­jor­ity opin­ion won. The Duan cou­ple didn’t have any­thing left to say. I said OK, it’s set­tled, bent down, and picked up the lit­tle dog, hand­ing it to Lou. “What the thing’s name?” Lou spoke stut­ter­ingly. “His name is…ul­tra­man.” Ul­tra­man? I laughed. “Ul­tra­man can only fight with lit­tle mon­sters.” Lou shyly shook his head, like a small child. “I’m a small mon­ster, he al­ways bul­lies me.” He laughed, and I saw that, when he did, two dim­ples ap­peared.

We switched rooms. My room had faced south, and was sunny. Part of me re­ally didn’t want to switch. But for this Ul­tra­man and the lit­tle mon­ster, even though I was usu­ally self­ish and stingy, I some­how per­formed this act of great com­pas­sion. Of course, I knew that this didn’t mean that I was look­ing to take any­thing to the next level with Lou; this was it. We ran into each other in the morn­ing and night, would nod and smile, pass­ing each other by, and that was it.

I didn’t come to this city for him and he didn’t come here for me. We had an am­i­ca­ble re­la­tion­ship; there was no rea­son to mess with that. The lit­tle mon­ster also did un­ex­pected things—on International Women’s Day, show­ing up with two tick­ets to Thun­der­storm, which was play­ing at the Beijing Peo­ple’s Art Theater. I never go to the theater—i get sleepy as soon as the lights go out—but the lit­tle mon­ster got all choked up watch­ing the performance. As his arms jerked with emo­tion, I woke up. He watched the play, and I watched him watch it. Af­ter it was done, I asked him which char­ac­ter he liked best, to which he re­sponded Fan Yi, but it’s a pity that he didn’t have her courage.

“Why didn’t you look for some­one new?” Lou asked out of the blue on the sub­way. Find? Who would I find? I make less than 5,000 RMB a month, I’m over 30, my looks are fad­ing, I’ve no house, no car, no Beijing hukou, who would I find? I could only eas­ily ask, “Why don’t you?”

Lou laughed bit­terly, cant­ing his head to the side. I looked at the side of his face in the train win­dow. He had prom­i­nent cheek­bone, and flat cheeks, a de­cent manly coun­te­nance. “Well, who would I look for?” Lou had said what I also wanted to say.

Duan’s wife had the baby, a boy, and he held a cel­e­bra­tion. The wife was or­dered not to work for the next few years, and re­serve all her en­ergy for cul­ti­vat­ing the Duan fam­ily’s sin­gle seedling. When the time came, Duan


had the tra­di­tional one-month party for the child, and got a large amount of cash as gifts. We all got to­gether on the week­end. Duan’s wife held the baby; it waved its lit­tle hands; Ul­tra­man slipped through the crack in the door, ran over to our feet, and licked the baby’s hand. Duan’s wife quickly snatched the baby away. Aunt Men spoke se­ri­ously: “Now, Lou, you can’t have this dog here. What if it bites the child?” Lou spoke in a small voice: “Ul­tra­man is shy, plus he’s so small. Even smaller than the baby.” I joined in: “The mom is right here; there’s noth­ing to be afraid of.”

Duan said noth­ing. It was an old ar­gu­ment, and not ap­pro­pri­ate for the oc­ca­sion. I made a point of clap­ping my hands and chang­ing the topic. “Let’s have him pick an ob­ject! Let’s see what he wants to do with his life!” Aunt Men was ex­cited, say­ing yes, yes, let’s have him pick; I’ll put down this gold ring. Duan’s wife was also into it, say­ing, Duan, quickly, go get that of­fi­cial seal, some cash, a col­ored pen, a ping-pong pad­dle, chop­sticks, a stetho­scope, lip­stick, a model car, a globe, and a mo­bile phone. Duan com­plied. Soon, ev­ery­thing was gath­ered and spread in a cir­cle on the floor, and Duan’s wife placed the baby in cen­ter

Ev­ery­one was clap­ping, Duan’s wife the hard­est—maybe she’d had enough of poverty—yelling: “Grab the gold! Grab the cash! Quick, baby! Lis­ten, baby—” Aunt Men joined in, say­ing some­thing about grab­bing the seal and be­com­ing an of­fi­cial and get­ting rich—she clearly hasn’t watched the news in a few years.

I asked Lou which one he wanted the child to pick. “The col­ored pen,” he said qui­etly. “I al­ways thought it was a pity I didn’t be­come an artist.” The baby looked about, dart­ing left and right, then went and solidly grasped the col­ored pen. Duan’s wife made a real show of dis­ap­point­ment. Aunt Men said it was fine; if he learns to draw, he can have prospects. Duan’s wife spoke acridly—what prospects? Do­ing art, spend­ing money, starv­ing to death, who’s go­ing to feed him? Some­one knocked at the door. “Is Lou Rongbo here?”

A man stood at the door, hold­ing a card­board box. Short hair, medium height, with very small, nar­row eyes, and puffy eye­lids. He looked all right though, and had a nice nose. Of all fea­tures, a man’s nose is the most im­por­tant. His was full, and had a nice round tip. He looked ed­u­cated. Yes, I said, lead­ing him inside.

“Lou.” Only one word, but the room froze, ev­ery­one turn­ing their heads cu­ri­ously. Lou stood there, rigid, a crest­fallen ex­pres­sion upon his face, like a pizza that’d just been ru­ined, sprin­kled with sour, sweet, bit­ter, spicy and salty in­gre­di­ents all over.

The stranger came in slowly, the box in his arms. Lou still hadn’t moved and, with the box be­tween them, it was as if they were sep­a­rated by an ocean. The baby just sat on the floor, look­ing in­no­cently on.

The man man­aged to force out a sen­tence: “I’m giv­ing it back; it’s all your stuff.” Lou didn’t reach out, and the guest said some­thing else. Lou sud­denly started to cry, silently, just tears stream­ing down his face. His shoul­ders be­gan to heave; it was an odd dis­play, not pain, more pure sad­ness. The guest put down the box, hug­ging Lou tightly as he cried, so tightly their shoul­ders touched. I re­al­ized what was go­ing on.

Duan’s wife yelled at her hus­band, ex­as­per­ated: “Come on, take the kid inside!” The baby smiled, not un­der­stand­ing. He didn’t need to un­der­stand. He was a soul that had just come into the world; his past was short and the fu­ture was long.

Aunt Men also re­treated to her room, with an “Aiya!” I went to the bal­cony; I need to give them some space, some time of their own. I lit a cig­a­rette, stand­ing at the edge of the bal­cony; th­ese old-fash­ioned pro­trud­ing bal­conies are pretty rare, and I sud­denly wanted to smoke. The air was smoggy; the lights of the build­ing op­po­site was blurred, and the street­lights above were dim. It was dark ev­ery­where. I found a pack in my bed­side ta­ble, Zhong­nan­hai brand, from a girl in my of­fice who was get­ting mar­ried. I found the lighter, snapped it on, and saw the words on the side of the pack, “Smok­ing is bad for your health.” I laughed. F*ck that. Isn’t it bad for your health to live inside of smog? I bit down on the cig­a­rette butt, lit it, took a drag.

“He re­ally needs to move out.” Aunt Men was sat on the toi­let, flip­ping through an old mag­a­zine, face full of frus­tra­tion. “It’s re­ally not suit­able for him to live here.” I was brush­ing my teeth. Foam leaked out of my mouth as I spoke. “What’s not suit­able?” Aunt Men spoke: “You didn’t see, that day? Come on, you un­der­stand.” “Un­der­stand? Un­der­stand what?” I fin­ished brush­ing, and spat. Aunt Men rolled up the mag­a­zine, and rapped it on the side of the toi­let. “To use some new slang, he’s a ji!” I couldn’t help

3 laugh­ing. “Ji? A chicken? Are there ducks, too?” Aunt Men hur­riedly ex­plained: “No, ji the char­ac­ter ‘foun­da­tion,’ not ji the char­ac­ter ‘chicken egg.’ That ‘ ji’ refers to a ‘miss,’ whereas this ‘ ji’ means—”

4 I looked at her, through the mir­ror,

and wanted to laugh.

“It means what? A ‘mis­ter’?” Aunt Men saw I wasn’t on the same page, and sud­denly got se­ri­ous. “Miss Hu.” What, Miss Hu? She’d al­ways called me Mingzhu, and now I was Miss Hu. “I’m no­ti­fy­ing ev­ery­one on be­half of the land­lord. I’m not here to so­licit opin­ions. There are el­derly and chil­dren in this apart­ment, and a type like Mr. Lou liv­ing here re­ally isn’t ap­pro­pri­ate.” I took a big sip of water and gar­gled, spit­ting it out. “The land­lord? When did the Duans be­come the land­lord?” I turned my head.

They went through with it that night, hold­ing a “se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion,” block­ing Lou in the kitchen and giv­ing a talk along the lines of, “The land­lord is tak­ing the place back, we’ve all got to move.” Lou didn’t re­ally push it, just say­ing that it’s hard to find a place, but that he’d try to move as quickly as pos­si­ble; as soon as he found a suit­able place, he’d be out.

But af­ter a month had passed, Lou still hadn’t found a place. When I had time, I’d go with him to look, but no mat­ter where we went, noth­ing was es­pe­cially good. Find­ing a place th­ese days is harder than find­ing a part­ner. Ei­ther it’s too far, or the rooms too small, or it didn’t have this or that. I know that in a big city, you can’t be too picky look­ing for a place to live, but usu­ally you won’t have to run away just be­cause of oth­ers’un­rea­son­able re­quire­ments, ei­ther. Lou sat be­side me on the bus. It was a rare clear day in Beijing. I crossed legs and I men­tioned how Aunt Men had given me a lan­guage les­son that day.

Lou was con­fused, asked me what kind of les­son. I laughed as I spoke: “She said that the ji in ba­sic, isn’t like the ji in chicken.” Lou’s face sud­denly turned red. He spoke: “Well, you could say, ji, like ba­sic, means that in a place like Beijing you have your ba­sic free­dom, or some­thing…i didn’t imag­ine that…” I didn’t know what to say next. We got off the bus, and Lou said he was out of food for Ul­tra­man, so we went and bought two bags. By the time we got home, it was dark. We heard a whim­per­ing sound, and gar­gling: Some­one was vom­it­ing.

Aunt Men’s door was closed, and the light was off. Maybe she’d gone to dance in the plaza. The Duans’ door was also shut, and no­body was in the com­mon area, or in my room, or Lou’s room, but we clearly heard vom­it­ing. Lou stood there qui­etly for a few sec­onds. “Ul­tra­man!” Where was the dog? “Ul­tra­man!...” Lou cried, fran­ti­cally search­ing for the dog.

Fi­nally, he pushed open the kitchen door. Ul­tra­man there, mouth blue, its en­tire body con­vuls­ing as it vom­ited some sub­stance. There were small blue-frosted pills that looked like cold medicine scat­tered around the floor, some with the frost­ing licked off, re­veal­ing the evil white inside. Where did the medicine come from? Such a big pack­age? Where did Ul­tra­man dig them out from? I be­came a con­spir­acy the­o­rist, as Lou picked up the dog and ran out­side.

I didn’t fol­low, but used my cam­era to doc­u­ment the scene, even though it was re­ally no help. When Aunt Men and the Duan cou­ple came back, they acted like they had no idea what hap­pened, no idea where the pills came from, no idea why Ul­tra­man would eat them, and no par­tic­u­lar rea­son why they had all left the house at the same time. As far as I knew, th­ese blue pills had been out of pro­duc­tion for years, and were only man­u­fac­tured in small fac­to­ries in sec­ond- and third-tier cities. I’d heard Duan’s wife used to work in a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal fac­tory. I don’t want to con­jec­ture; there was no proof. My only ev­i­dence was those blue pills, and what use was that? Ul­tra­man was only a dog, he couldn’t talk, couldn’t tes­tify. In the end, he didn’t die, but the vet said he may never bark again. It was an in­no­cent sac­ri­fice, un­lucky to have an owner who was dis­liked.

“I’m off.” A week later, Lou came to bid me farewell. His hands were in his pock­ets, shoul­ders hunched, a de­lib­er­ately re­laxed ap­pear­ance that couldn’t hide the melan­choly. I made the phone shape with my fin­gers and put them to my ear. “Keep in touch.” Lou laughed. “Of course; the new Spi­der-man is about to come out, we should watch it to­gether.” The edges of my eyes felt hot, and I low­ered my head. I didn’t want him to see. “Of course, we gotta watch Spi­der-man. I like Spi­der-man.” I love Spi­derMan. He’s a hero, but most of the time he’s just a nor­mal guy, hid­den in the crowd. Now that Lou’s gone, I think I will move out soon.


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