Lone, Lonely Town

— Mimi Wong

Anna got off the bus. She walked through the market, past stalls selling fresh lychee, live frogs in netted bags, and sticks of syrup-coated candies. She stopped by a cart full of white peaches and paid for half a kilo. Down an unpaved street, children played in a ditch filled with broken bottles, rubber tires, and empty oil drums. It reminded her of the dirt path she used to follow everyday on her way to school, running alongside a row of dilapidated one-story houses. The houses were made of brick and concrete, the roofs shingled with wood or tile, sometimes covered with metal sheeting. She had lived in such a house with her mother and sister, all of them sleeping together in one room.

She continued toward the tall, new developments in the distance.

She rode the elevator up to the seventh floor. She let herself in to the apartment. Though still modest in size, it was nevertheless an upgrade from their last place—a studio in a small walk-up, paid for with money from the government after their first home was demolished.

It’s too much, her mother had said.

Anna didn’t know how to explain that it wasn’t filial piety that had compelled her to act generously but her own sense of shame. She couldn’t live one way in Shanghai and then come home to squalor.

Ma! Ni zai na li?

She found her mother in the kitchen’s tiny alcove, removing laundry from the wash. Her mother had unlatched the door to the enclosed balcony, where she was hanging clothes to dry. Anna placed the bag of peaches on the counter, taking one out to rinse. After locating a cutting board and knife, she began slicing up the fruit. She sampled a sliver, savoring the crisp bite, the crunchiness, and the lingering tart flavor. She offered her mother a pretty peach crescent.

“Why did you want to stay here?”

Her mother responded in the local dialect.

“You know I’m too old to move again.”

“No, I mean, back in the day. When Auntie Shirley left, why didn’t you go with her?”

“I stayed to take care of your grandmother. She thinks I was jealous of her leaving—because she feels guilty—and she married a husband with a lot of money. But I was relieved that I didn’t have to worry about my little sister anymore. Turns out, she took care of us—of your little sister. I will always be grateful to her. I wish you could find that kind of happiness.”

“You mean like Mei? She didn’t even bother to tell us that she was getting married. How could she invite Auntie Shirley to her wedding and not you?”

“She keeps asking me for your telephone number. You should call her.” Anna heard her mother sigh. “It would have been too hard for me to leave.”

They remained standing at the counter as they finished off the peach. Anna intended to save the last slice for her mother, but her mother insisted that she take it while she sucked on what meat was left on the pit. She asked her what they should eat for dinner. There was, again, some back and forth on who would do the cooking, but Anna won out this time.

When her younger sister had turned seven, her mother had sent her to live in France with their aunt. She had even arranged for Auntie Shirley to formally adopt Wen Li, which was no easy feat, as she possessed no birth certificate. But it was preferable to the alternative, having to raise two daughters by herself. Their father was gone, traveling from province to province looking for work.

Anna did not see her sister again until ten years later when she was finally able to leave China. Auntie Shirley, having married a wealthy businessman, was able to help pay for Anna’s education in Paris. Auntie Shirley had insisted on it. By then, she and her husband had already been raising Wen Li as their own. What was a couple of thousand Euros toward l’université for another poor relation?

The wedding continued to weigh on Anna’s mind as she lay dinner out on the small dining table covered in plastic that sat in the corner. While she still wasn’t sure of her personal feelings about marriage, she felt indignant on behalf of her mother that they should have been excluded. They were family, after all.

She called for her mother.

Between the two of them, they made do with a pot of winter melon and pork rib soup and side of mapo tofu. Anna scooped out a bowl of rice for each of them. While they ate, they spoke about quotidian matters. Her mother asked after her health. She lectured her on drinking more tea and smoking less. Anna guiltily thought about the pack of Superslims tucked into her purse. She was trying to cut back, she insisted.

After dinner, they sat side by side on the couch watching a new reality show that pit aspiring entrepreneurs against each other in order to find the next Chinese Donald Trump. She considered telling her mother about Guy. But there was no point, she reasoned, since she intended to refuse him. She didn’t need to disappoint her mother, yet again.

The next morning, she took the return train back to Shanghai. Glancing at the passengers around her, she could easily identify them: local women, ayi’s, returning to their posts in the city; European backpackers studying up on their guidebooks; but mostly, they were men driven to work on the weekend. She turned on her BlackBerry and sorted through the emails awaiting her response.

She felt as she were standing on the edge of a precipice with one foot in the air. In China, it was no longer enough to be satisfied with simply being another cog in the machine. She had heard stories of factory life from old classmates, the feelings of anonymity and disparity. Anna was lucky, she had risen above them. She had become Westernized. She believed in the promise of Shanghai, that individual ideas were valuable there. It wasn’t like life in the interior, where your family told you what to do. But that kind of freedom, like gas expanding in a balloon, also created pressure.

Last week, she had received a proposal of sorts over the phone. She had come running out of the bar to take the call, and as she had stood on the darkened street with the phone pressed against her ear—leaving behind the din of the crowd, the clink of glass, Tami Terrell’s voice crooning—Guy had posed the question. He asked her, for the second time, if she wouldn’t move back to Paris with him. He said he wanted to marry her. They were always vying for her hand (except in her mind the word ‘vie’ sounded too much like ‘tie’).

She was thirty-one, late by Chinese standards to be marrying. But it didn’t feel so simple to her. Not every man wanted to be married to a woman more successful than he.

The train slowed as they approached the Shanghai Railway Station. She gathered her belongings and stood, preparing to exit behind the other passengers who had already begun to push toward the door. She filed out and followed the crowd moving along the platform.

Once outside of the commuter rail terminal, she crossed immediately into the metro station, tapped her transit card on the sensor of the ticket gate, and rode the escalator down to Line 1. There were currently only two major metro lines spread out like a cross under the city. In the next four years, ten more would be built.

Her apartment in Zhabei was conveniently located just one stop south of the train station and only two stops from her office in People’s Square. She got off at Hanzhong Lu zhan and surfaced in the dirty, gray city. The sky was overcast. It had been a week since she had last seen the sun. She walked past a fenced in lot where a new complex was in the process of being built. She sniffed the noxious smells of freshly laid concrete and wet paint—the perfume she had come to associate with the city. How ironic that so many foreigners arrived at the port that was Shanghai, looking for remnants of Chinese history and culture, when in fact it had never really been Chinese at all. It had been colonized by the Europeans, then the Japanese. It had been run by the communists, then the capitalists. Shanghai was a city built and rebuilt. Without a singular past, without clear memory. An amnesiac.

In the lobby, she tapped her keycard, waited for the approving beep, then passed through the glass door. One of the two elevators was out again. The other seemed to be stuck on 23. She waited. Finally, when the car arrived and the doors parted, she stepped inside and pressed 37.

The two-bedroom apartment was owned by a former colleague from Taiwan, who was willing to rent it out to her for a more-than-fair rate. Everything, from the parquet floors to the stainless steel kitchen appliances to the IKEA furnishings, was brand new. And being so high up, the view was entrancing. When she had first moved in, she had stood at the window looking out over the glittering city and fancied that she was a princess living in a castle in the clouds.

She went to the spare room, which she used as a home office. The first thing she did was check her voicemail. She had missed two calls while she was on the train.

Fei Li? Fei Li, are you home?

Hardly anyone addressed her by her Chinese name anymore.

Please give your sister a call.

The next message was from Guy. She wondered why he should be calling her from Paris this time of day. But to her surprise, he told her that he was in Beijing. Then, he said something even more unexpected. He offered to move to China, to Shanghai, permanently, if that’s what she wanted. It would take some time to work it out, but within the next six months he was sure he could find a way, if only she would say—

She put the phone down. Sitting at her desk, she turned on her computer. There were documents that required revising and numbers that needed double-checking. In her quiet apartment, removed from the sound of the streets, she worked through the greater part of the day.

When she next looked up, darkness had fallen outside. Her body hummed from hunger, not having had anything to eat since breakfast with her mother. But she felt at peace as she sat there with the glow of the computer screen illuminating her face. Her eyes drifted toward the window, through which the city lights shone brightly. Shanghai was most exquisite at night, she thought.

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