This is a translation of the first chapter of Floating City by Liang Xiaosheng, which is a novel about a floating city
Liang Xiaosheng (梁晓声) has written stories about young men and women sent to the countryside in the 1960s and gloomy essays on problems in contemporary China.
A handful of his shorter works have made it into English, most notably Panic and Deaf: Two Modern Satires, translated by Hanming Chen, edited by James O. Belcher and published by University of Hawai’i Press in 2001 (“mordant and absurdist,” according to the back cover), and also a few short stories, most from the 1980s and early-1990s. His novel-length works were ignored. His recent collections of essays were successes but would seem to have limited appeal in translation.
Floating City (浮城 Fú Chéng / Flower City Publishing House, 1992) is too good to overlook.
I understand, though. I noticed the novel on Paper Republic’s list of “Recommended Untranslated Books” in 2009. The frequently appended tags of “satire” and “magical realism” turned me off.
Social satire from Mainland writers is not something I actively seek out. The prejudice began with assigned readings of Republican Era humorists and was cemented by garbage like Yu Hua putting his protagonist on a golden toilet. Chinese social satire tends to be hamfisted, dumb, and dull. I understand why and I know there are exceptions but it’s enough to put me off anything labeled “satire” published in Chinese.
“Magical realism” in Chinese literature — yeah, cool, okay, but not rarely interesting to me in 2017. Another thing that undergraduate assigned reading put me off.
Floating City caught my attention again, when it re-appeared on an updated version of the Paper Republic list. It was among the few books on the list that were “still untranslated” and with seemingly no prospect of being translated.
I decided to give it a try. From the opening page, I was hooked. It turned out to be an incredibly tightly written work with real creativity and emotion. Liang Xiaosheng’s satire is usually sharp. There are potshots at easy targets but Liang Xiaosheng has the benefit of having been there first.
There’s a humanity to the work, a sense that Liang knows what he’s writing about. Even without the satirical and magical realist elements — and this is widely touted, at least by Chinese critics, as the first magical realist novel in contemporary Chinese literature — the novel’s descriptions of contemporary life are accurate and prophetic.
Reading the work twenty five years after publication, it still feels fresh. Although the work was a bestseller and influential through the 1990s, it seems more in tune with the literary landscape of the present, when social satire (maybe?) and genre fiction (I mean, we’ll sell this as a sci-fi novel) from China are heating up in translation (in real life, not just on my carefully-curated Twitter feed of Chinese literary and genre fiction nerds). The only thing that’s kept it out of translation this long is… — I’m not sure but if I was forced to guess: it’s not incredibly well-known in the original, it’s old, weird China novels about floating cities are harder to sell than “This bold story of heroism during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution…,” “This ribald account of life during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution…” etc.
Please enjoy. Please forgive my errors. After you read the first chapter here, please continue on to the second chapter: This is a translation of the second chapter of Liang Xiaosheng’s Floating City, which is a novel about a floating city….
First, the opening chapter.
“Fuckin’ thing won’t open,” he said.
He had been working at it a long time now.
Her pants were impossibly tight and hung improbably low on her hips. He had managed to jerk them down but now she lay on the bed like a half-peeled banana. Tied at the waist. Not a pretty little belt. A length of red nylon cord, as thick as a finger. A knot in the middle. Two lengths swinging free with two balls of nylon bundled up at their tips. He couldn’t tear it off. The nylon cord was strong enough to hang yourself with. A double knot in the middle. He knew it was hopeless.
He was mumbling to himself. Burning up with anger. Hatred. Hatred of someone, something — he wasn’t sure what he was angry at. He didn’t know if he hated the person that designed the pants or maybe he hated her — her, the woman that he wanted to tear to pieces, to ravage. Or maybe he hated the pants themselves.
He bent to the knot and began to bite at it.
It was useless.
He looked like a cat. He looked like a cat, cracking open an egg. The cat doesn’t know what is inside the egg, whether or not what is inside the egg is worth the trouble or not — but the cat must crack open the egg.
She looked down at him. She laughed. Her laugh was like clinking wine glasses. He laugh was beautiful.
She liked holding a man like this, bending him to her will. She dreamed that one day every man in the world would be bent to her, would be ground under her heel. That’s all she cared about. She didn’t care if the whole world burned. All the street stalls were selling 1999 Global Apocalypse. Some foreigner wrote it. She bought it. She read it. She — believed it. It’s not that she took every word of the book as the truth, but you’d be stupid if you didn’t think that the world was just about ready to flame out. She didn’t really care, one way or the other. She wasn’t scared. She knew it could all end tomorrow. She knew that either the world would end or she would end — she was optimistic: her beauty and her youth would probably hold out until the world flamed. Nothing lasts forever. Why not suck every last drop out of life, while she still could? On that night, listening to the grunting of that idiot, fumbling in the dark — that idiot, who she had caught like a fly in her web…. She wondered how anyone could think life was anything but a game?
He thought he was ravaging her. But the pants were still on. A layer of fabric was still between them. She knew that she was the one ravaging him. She was tearing him apart. She was shredding his will. She was cutting up his masculinity. It’s all a game. Life is a game.
He fumbled. His forehead beaded with sweat.
He tore at the knot. She laughed again, but he could not see her laugh. She laughed inside.
The double knot at her waist was not a knot at all. The double knot at her waist was a decoration. There was no way to untie it.
He was throwing his troops against a fortified gate. He didn’t know that the backdoor had been left latched but unlocked. At the back of her pants, there was a fastener. Only one. Hard to see. Once the latch was open, the pants would slip off. She bought them because of the fastener. They were worth the two hundred and thirty yuan she paid for them.
She wouldn’t tell him. She knew she wouldn’t tell him.
“How do I open this thing?”
He was angry. Even worse, he felt that he had been insulted. He was indignant.
She looked down at him. She could use her eyes: to tease him, to provoke him. She didn’t believe in anything else. She believed in that glance. She believed that glance could turn any girl into a goddess in a man’s eyes. She was as sure of that as she was sure the world was going to flame out. She had practiced it in the mirror, that look. She practiced the look until she was sure. Any man would be forced to kneel in front of her. A good man, a pure man. She succeeded every single time she tried. It never took very long.
This was not a test of strength. This was not a boxing match. The men were stronger than her, physically. But when they threw themselves at her and tore at her with all of their strength — she had already won. When they tore at her and she smiled peacefully down at them, she knew. The men did not know. They could not read it on her face. Her arrogance was hidden. That was the moment that she despised them the most. She despised them because they did not know that she had defeated them.
This man was wasting her time and her energy. This taxi driver, who was laying on top of her now, was barely worth the couple hundred yuan that she’d gotten off him. What was a couple hundred yuan even worth? It wasn’t worth this.
There was no way she was going to tell him how take off her pants! There was no way she was going to take them off herself. She pretended to be shy — shy! “Shy.” That’s a word that stinks of hypocrisy. Her first, back when her price was a dance-hall ticket and a quick meal, had been a fat man, fortysomething, ran a bāozi stall. The fat man’s wife had found them. The wife had burst through the door. The wife had dragged her onto the floor. She was naked. The fat man was naked. The wife dragged them out of the room. She was seventeen and a half. She was still in junior middle school. She hadn’t gone on to high school….
The wife of the fat man said she was “exposing” them.
That was the last time.
You can only expose a roll of film once.
She didn’t care. It was the wife of the fat man that was made a fool of on that day. The fat man’s wife slapped her husband, tossed his underwear to him, and walked off with her nose in the air. The fat man’s wife looked proud.
She knew she was untouchable. She walked through life knowing that she was the hero of her own story.
“This fucking thing….”
“Relax, baby. Take it slow.”
The knot was covered in his saliva. Her pants were soaked with her saliva.
She stretched her hand down to his head. She ran her fingers through his thick hair. He had good hair. Soft. Like a purebred Pekingese. Natural curls.
She did not tell him that the knot was not a knot. She did not tell him that it could not be opened. She thought: if he can’t take my pants off, that’s his own fault. Imagine asking the laotàitai that sells chádàn how to peel the shells off the eggs. If you can’t peel the shell, you don’t deserve to eat the egg. He could chew through the nylon, for all she cared.
His irritation satisfied her.
She leaned back and tried to look as lovely as possible. She laughed. Her mind wandered. She thought about Kuwait. She thought about Uncle Saddam and Old Man Bush, fighting over a piece of desert. Who told Saddam to grab it? Why did Bush think it was his responsibility to take it back? If the Americans wanted to take that piece of dirt back, they deserved to pay for it in blood. England, France, they went ahead and joined in, too. Could have caused World War Three. And this Gorbachev. What kind of President was he? It’s weird. Heilongjiang. If you look at it on the map, it runs right under the Soviets’ noses. If God didn’t plan that, who did?
She was lost in her own mental wanderings, pondering questions without answers.
He made her sick. Her face was as lovely as ever. Her expression was as serene as ever. It was instinct alone that kept the mask up. Inside, she was laughing. No matter how hard he tried, he could not untie the knot that was not a knot.
China in the 1990s sprouted cities like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Deep in those cities, there appeared girls like this. No. That’s not right. Not “girls.” They were never “girls.” They were children and then they were women. They sold themselves, retail and wholesale. They did not go where they were told. They decided for themselves.
They were a different class of woman than prostitutes of earlier ages, who, even if they attained respectability, were always fallen women, at least in their own minds. This new class of woman, even if they accepted respectability, were always, at heart, comfortable with the idea that they had made a living selling themselves. To those women, selling themselves was not merely a profession but an all-encompassing way of life. If you were tasked with picking out which citizens of China are most contented, most unrestrained and most comfortable with themselves, you would have to consider those women first. Whether or not you agree with how they choose to live, there’s no denying that….
The drought came and the river fell but the fish kept swimming as the sky grew closer.
Those women gloried in the urgency of life in the city.
Her thoughts wandered out of the desert.
She pulled herself onto her elbows and said: “Excuse me, can you get me that dictionary over there?”
Grumbling, he reached for the dictionary. He gave up his attack on the knot that was not a knot. His attention floated upward.
She flipped through the dictionary and then shut it and tossed it aside. She asked: “We say zuò ài… but should it be zuò like gōngzuò, like, as in ‘a job,’ or zuò as in ‘to make something’. If it’s like gōngzuò… seems a bit odd. That zuò has three meanings: ‘to create,’ as in ‘create excitement,’ ‘to prescribe,’ or ‘to hold,’ as in ‘hold a meeting.’ So, zuò ài with that character in it — it can’t be right. If it’s zuò, as in ‘to make,’ it makes it sound like you’re building a cabinet. I like that! Manufacturing. Building. That’s interesting.”
He could not figure out how to take her shirt off, either. He fumbled for buttons or a zipper and couldn’t find either. There was a nylon cord on the shirt, too. There was a knot that was not really a knot on the nylon cord that held the shirt on. He could not open it.
“Fuck, not this again. What the fuck is going on here?”
Maybe she didn’t even hear him. She wasn’t listening, anyways. Her soliloquiy continued: “Chinese people, we’re always playing at something: wán this, wán that. Everything is play. Take that verb wán. You can wán ideology, wán responsibility, wán elegance, wán literature, wán emotion, wán pledging undying love, wán sincerity. You can play at everything. I wonder who started that. Everything is a game you can play. You know, it would make more sense to say wán ài. At least it would be more modern. Listen, relax. Give me a minute. I’m thinking.”
She froze. The mask of loveliness slipped away. Serenity was replaced by horror.
He had a knife in his hand. It was the same knife that he had just used to cut up a watermelon for the two of them. He was angry and he was indignant.
“What-what are you doing?”
“I’m going to cut you into little pieces.”
As smoothly as cutting open a fish, he put the knife into the neck of her shirt and sliced it down to her waist.
She felt the knife slide across her belly.
He cut off her pants.
Like the guts of a fish falling on a cutting board, her dark green shirt and dark green pants fell on the pink sheets. She was naked.
“You’re going to pay for these!” She was as angry as he was. She didn’t care if he was playing tough. She loved those clothes.
He slapped her across the face. He turned and stabbed the knife into the table. He climbed on top of her.
It was the first time she had ever pushed back.
He put his hands around her neck. She could not breathe.
She knew, when she looked up at him, that he no longer cared about her body. He wanted to kill her.
She could not fight him off. Wán ài floated through her mind. She felt a twinge of shame. She promised herself that she’d get revenge.
She felt herself weakening.
He used her body. He took out all of his hatred and disgust on her. Her thoughts of revenge slipped into the darkness.
Wan’er’s death will not be described further.
“You enjoy that?”
There was still venom in his voice, even as he got dressed.
She was silent.
He patted her cheek. There was no response. He put his ear to her chest. He heard nothing.
She wasn’t breathing
The rain had rolled in while he was inside. The rain whipped the roof of the taxi. There was no sound but the sound of the rain. The entire city was asleep.
He ran to the taxi, covering his head with his suit jacket. He ripped open the door and climbed inside. He tossed the wet jacket onto the seat beside him. He looked back, as he always did.
As he always did? Fuck that. Not like he always did. He looked back again, through the steel bars of the safety cage. The cages were considered after one of the female drivers had been murdered in her car. Now, there were no female drivers. Shortly after that murder, two of the male drivers were beaten and robbed. Picking a passenger up at night now, looking at them through the steel mesh, there was always the feeling that they were about to do something. He sat on a wrench during his shifts. He practiced whipping it out. He could kill someone with it, he knew. He could cave their head in like a watermelon.
He was a murderer, so he feared being murdered. That is what a murderer fears. He was more vigilant than usual. If vigilance and fear were measurable, quantifiable, perhaps he was ten times more vigilant and ten times more fearful.
He felt alone. He took the wrench from under his leg and held it in his right hand and worked the steering wheel with his left. He was a good driver, with one hand on the wheel or two. He stepped on the gas and shot the Toyota Crown back onto the street.
The only thing in his mind was: run. But he did not know where to run. He felt as if the city had closed in on him. He still wanted to run. That was simply instinct. That was the first thought everyone has after committing a crime. If they turn themselves in, it is only because they managed to rationally combat the instinct to run, to escape.
He came to an intersection. He took a left. It was as if he was being guided by voices that nobody else could hear. He flew past a side road. Flew past a side road. Past a side road. The windshield wipers moved without making a sound. The rain reduced the beam of the headlights to a pale yellow glow ahead of the car. God was sending down a real rain to wash all the scum off the streets. God was standing up in Heaven, blasting down with a fire hose, scrubbing the city clean. The trees along the street were soaked. Fat drops from their leaves joined the whipping rain. At the next intersection, he turned. A wooden construction barrier flashed for an instant in the dim headlights. There was only darkness. It felt like the entire city had been plunged into darkness.
Past the barrier, the road had been torn up by an excavator. The car crept along the road bed. The car bottomed out on busted asphalt and spun its wheels in the mud. He eased the car free each time. He was soon exhausted.
He was stuck in the mud again, his wheels spinning. His motor roared.
Suddenly, there was nothing. When he looked through the windshield, he could see nothing. The trees were gone and the road was gone and the street lights were gone. Nothing. Nothing. There was nothing. The car was a firefly against a velvet black night sky.
It was instinct alone that brought his right foot down on the brake.
He didn’t know how long he had driven. The car had cut through the city. The car was on the edge of the city. He was at the piers. The car’s front tires were only a few feet from the edge of the concrete platform.
He finally realized where he was. His hand slipped from the steering wheel. His other hand still held the wrench. His knuckles were white on the steel shaft of the wrench. This is difficult to explain. Even though his body had slumped in the seat, the hand that held the wrench and the arm that held the hand were tensed, ready to strike. The hand that held the wrench seemed to no longer be his own. The hand was a machine. The hand was a tool, no different from the wrench it held.
He looked up and saw the wave coming. It crashed over him and the waved rolled past him, rushing into the city…. He screamed. The world went dark. There was no wave. He was hallucinating. The rain whipped the roof of the taxi.
How did he end up here?
He had run. He wanted to escape. He had come to a dead end. He wondered if this was an hallucination, too. Maybe he was dreaming. Maybe he hadn’t killed anyone. Maybe he was locked in this dream like a man buried alive. He felt a sense of calm. If it was a dream, there was no need to run anymore. He did not pinch himself. He did not bite his finger. No, he had another way to check. He took a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. He’d bought them at the KTV. He remembered handing a bill to the girl, getting the change back: three yuan four jiao. He felt in his pocket and took it out: three yuan four jiao. He remembered every detail. It couldn’t be a dream. There are no details in a dream. The sense of calm began to fade. If you are murdered, you get revenge. The murderer fears being brought to justice but they always have that other, greater fear. Everyone that has killed fears the blade or the pistol being turned back on them. The only ones that escape that fear are those that kill to make a living, assassins and executioners. He flicked the lighter and dialed up the gas, so that the flame rose high and deep orange. No. No, it was not a dream. Dreams are black and white. Reality is in color. The flame was orange. No. You are finished running. You are a murderer. You tried to run and you ended up here. There’s no point in trying to escape. He was talking to himself. Tears ran down his face.
He did not light the cigarette.
He slumped against the steering wheel and sobbed.
The Public Security Bureau in the city was known to have an eighty-seven percent success rate. He had heard one of the other drivers throw out that figure just a few days ago. Thirteen percent of cases went unsolved. He did not think that he would be lucky enough to land among the thirteen percent of criminals that were never punished. The odds weren’t good. Motherfuck the Public Security Bureau. Serious dead-eyed motherfuckers. Thirteen percent. The odds weren’t good. He had lost all hope.
Of course, he hated her the most, at that moment. That whore, that Wan’er — or Lan Meimei, whatever they were calling her that day. He thought that their meeting must have been fate. She was his final test. She was no common whore. She had driven him mad. Their meeting was decreed by fate.
He hadn’t wanted to strangle her. He never thought about strangling her. He had known her for five days. In those five days, he had never once thought about killing her. But the knot was not a knot. He could not open it. She laughed at him. But he had no intention to kill her. He insisted to nobody. He told himself he had no intention of killing her.
That day, he had stopped in front of a stall, where a woman was selling clothes. He used to walk that same street, by himself, looking at the clothes for sale at the stalls. It was a sort of hobby. She had stopped at the same stall and picked up a matching set, shirt and pants, and held them up to herself. She turned back to him: “How about this one?”
He answered her. He did not seem surprised by the question.
“Very modern.” It was gentlemanly politeness, he thought.
“You got a fifty on you? I’m about thirty short.”
He took the money from his billfold.
She put the extra twenty in her own pocket. She laughed and turned and walked away. She said nothing to him.
She walked for a long time without turning back. When she finally turned her head, she acted as if she had not expected him to be following.
“Why are you following me?”
She frowned. She seemed confused. It did not seem as if they had just met a few minutes before.
He was following her. That was true. He did not know why he was following her. Was it to get a thank you from her? That was part of it. But even if she had thanked him and walked away, he would have still followed her. Fifty dollars was too much for a thank you. He wanted more than a thank you.
He had been considered a decent young man. He was the son of a primary school principal and a middle school teacher. Precocious. An introvert, who had trouble talking to women. The more beautiful the woman, the more trouble he had.
“I wasn’t-I… I….”
“Oh, right. I don’t even know what dānwèi you’re with.”
She seemed to have just remembered the money.
He rummaged through his pockets and finally produced his míngpiàn.
She looked it over and put it in her purse. She said: “Would it be okay if I wrote a letter to the paper, praising you? I was thinking the title of the letter could be something like, ‘I met a young man that keeps alive the spirit of Lei Feng.’”
She looked very serious.
“No, that’s okay. Please, don’t.”
“Then quit following me.”
She smiled the smile that she had practiced in the mirror so many times.
He stopped following her. He watched her walk away.
He thought he had been lied to. Blackmailed. Extorted. Played. He thought that if he chased after her, asked her where she worked, where she was living —he knew he’d look foolish. He didn’t want to make things worse.
He let her go. He tried to forget about her but he couldn’t. He didn’t want anyone to know about it but he ended up telling some of the men at the taxi company. Their reaction was exactly what one would expect.
“Why didn’t you say something to her? I expected better from you.”
“Don’t tell me you’re a virgin! What are you looking for? The last girl that still has her V-card?”
“Come on. I just heard the news on VOA, the last virgin in China offered up her virginity to the highest bidder. Go check for yourself.”
They passed an afternoon in this way.
He was humiliated. It was not because of their jokes but because he realized he had been cheated.
A few days later, he got a phone call.
She did not ask who she was speaking to.
She asked if it was him.
At the same time, her voice was letting him know who she was.
He knew right away. He liked hearing dàlù girls affecting a Hong Kong accent. He hated actual Hong Kong accents.
She told him she was at Huáqiáo Fàndiàn. She told him to come.
She said nothing about paying him back.
He had forgotten about the money as soon as he heard her voice. It was only fifty yuan, after all. He wasn’t going to worry about it.
He drove over.
She was already seated in a private booth. She was already wearing the two hundred and thirtysomething yuan clothes from the stall. Her face was bright. Her clothes set off the color of her face. A woman wearing eyeliner was no longer unusual. He had seen that before. But a woman wearing eye-shadow was a novelty. Even at the KTV and the dance hall, where women made a living selling themselves, it was almost unknown. Her eye-shadow was light blue. It was the first time he had seen a woman wearing eye-shadow. She was old enough to be called a girl but he knew she was a woman. She was one hundred percent woman. He sat across from her. He had always thought the difference between “girl” and “woman” was simply a question of age. She had a woman’s maturity. She had bloomed. Petals were gathering below the vase. She had ripened. Soon enough, she would tumble down from the branch. Her eyes, painted with eye-shadow, reminded him of a horse with blinders. She opened her eyes wide. Serene. Kind. Docile.
He felt himself weakening.
“Whatever you want to get, go ahead. Don’t order too much. The past few days, I haven’t had any appetite.”
She stretched her arm out elegantly and passed the menu to him.
He knew what to do. His eyes barely skimmed the cheaper items at the beginning of the menu.
She had an appetite. She knew exactly what she wanted. He could not take his eyes from her face. He ate distractedly.
“So, you and me… we’re friends, right?”
He nodded. He paid the bill, which had ended up at just over a hundred yuan.
She said: “If I call you, no matter what you’re doing, will you come and pick me up?”
He answered: “No problem.”
“What about right now?”
He had a pickup in about half an hour. He could miss it.
She stood. “Then take me to my friend’s place.”
He stood, ready to deliver her wherever she wanted to go.
In the restaurant’s vestibule, she said she wanted to buy a gift for her friend. It was her friend’s birthday.
They went together and she picked out a necktie. Designer. Expensive. He paid. Before meeting her, he had made sure he had enough money.
Her friend was a man in his forties. He looked smug. He wore a suit. She took the man’s hand and looked back at him, waving behind the man’s back before the two of them were swept into a hotel’s revolving door.
The man did not notice him.
He was not upset. He believed that he still possessed her. He believed that he possessed some portion of her, at least. He believed that there was a tacit agreement between them. He believed. He made sure he kept his wallet full. He knew that the day would come when he would have his chance. He would ravage her. He would cut her into pieces. That does not mean that he harbored some evil intentions. That is merely the metaphor he chose for the act.
He had not meant to go see her that day. He had not even thought about her, until the last fare of the day. The last fare had been interesting. They had been a couple. The man was older, a foreigner, who spoke a bit of Chinese. The woman looked familiar. He must have seen her somewhere before. After a few glances in the rear view, he remembered her from a VCD he had watched recently. She had played a spy.
He watched them in the rear view. He listened to them cooing to each other. He heard the sound of sucking kisses. He thought about kicking them out, right then and there. But the foreigner was going to pay in U.S. dollars. The company didn’t take payment in dollars, so what was the harm in the driver keeping it for himself? His disgust vanished. If he had only known what he was going to do in a few hours. He drove the car carefully. He didn’t want his passengers to be jostled. He fantasized that the foreigner was him and the girl beside him was Lan Meimei. He struggled to control his thoughts.
He went looking for her, after that. He found her. Luckily, he found her. He thought that if he had not found her, he may have found another woman. He had thought about picking a woman up in his taxi and raping her.
She was at the dance hall. After the song ended, he went to her. He said: “From now on, you’re my girl.”
“I don’t think so.”
She said it firmly. The music started again. She looked around for her partner. Her partner had already sought out another, a girl in a long red dress.
She shrugged her shoulders.
In the car, she said: “Where are we going?”
He said: “We’re going to your place. You live alone, right?”
She said: “I’m busy.”
He laughed: “I’m busy, too.” After a while, he said: “Let’s do what we have to do.”
“Please. Maybe another day. Another day. I’ll take care of you.”
Her face was imploring. His heart beat faster. He felt something welling up inside of him. Maybe. Maybe if she had been strong, if she had refused, he might have reconsidered. He decided that he had already paid enough, that he deserved it. She was not strong. Her face was imploring. Why didn’t she refuse?
Whether the imploring look was fake or whether it was real, it was a mistake. That kind of expression, that posture… it was like pouring fuel on the flames. Here is what he was thinking: You fucked up, Lan Meimei. Now, when he thought back to that moment, he did not change his mind. It was her mistake. He was convinced it was her mistake. It had been a deadly mistake. If she had been stronger, he would never have done it. The results of the mistake had been tragic — for her and for him.
“I’m not going to ask you again.”
That is what he said to her.
She looked at him. Her expression was no longer imploring. It is unclear what the look meant. They did not speak much after that. She showed him the way.
He looked out the window of his car. It felt like she was out there. He saw her eyes. Her saw only her eyes. He saw that expression that was no longer imploring. The rain swept across the windshield. The eyes were gone.
It felt like she was in the car with him, still.
He could no longer think clearly. He knew he wanted to die.
His foot moved to the gas pedal and then moved away. He wanted to die but he did not want to die in his car. He knew it would be more painful to drown in his car.
He opened the door of the taxi and walked out onto the pier. He walked slowly over to the edge of the concrete platform. The ocean was a sheet of black velvet. He shut his eyes and jumped down into the water.
The water was cold. He floated up to the surface. He had not considered the difficulty involved. He could swim quite well. Drowning yourself is hard but it’s nearly impossible, if you’re a strong swimmer, which he was. He crawled like a salamander up the concrete pier until he could grab the ladder and pull himself back up. He shivered in the cold and bolted for the car.
He knew something was wrong.
Where was the lighthouse?
He knew that the lighthouse should be dead ahead of him. It should be about two thousand feet out there with a navigation light shining at its top. Maybe it was broken. The light was out. There was no way it was out. He turned the key in the taxi’s ignition and put on the high beams. He got out of the car and looked out from the pier. No. No, something was wrong. The lighthouse was gone. The light was gone and the lighthouse was gone. He had driven along the piers that morning and seen them. Where did they go? There was no way they tore it down that very day. The road along the piers seemed to be different somehow, too. He felt it: the road was running west to east — it used to be north to south.
West. North. East. South.
He had a feeling for these things.
He looked up the road. The road was running west to east. It shouldn’t.
He backed the car away from the pier. He slowly drove the road along the piers. The way he considered the city, the side facing the ocean was the front side and the side facing the countryside was the back side. A city on the ocean wasn’t like an inland city. The ocean would always be the front side. Consider this: the city is a melon and the countryside is the stem.
He knew. He had figured it out. He was sure of it, even if he wasn’t sure if he was alive or dead, trapped or still running.
He drove the road until he went past the piers and where the road once ran right along the ocean. He drove until he reached the end of the road.
This was his conclusion: the city by the sea was no longer a city by the sea. The city was surrounded on all sides by the ocean. The city had dropped from its stem and rolled down into the water.
Water on all sides.
It was unbelievable. It was the only thing he was sure of.
It was clear now. The city was floating on the ocean. It seemed that he was the only one that had noticed.
Like an infant that falls asleep in his mother’s arms and wakes up on a distant peak.
The sun was coming up. The rain had stopped.
In the dawn light, he saw a railway bridge, stretching out into the void. An old stone house, gone except for the compound’s wall, and its occupants gone — maybe they leaped to safety on dry land or maybe they were drowned in the sea. The fertilizer factory was gone. The sign pointing the way to the fertilizer directed traffic into the ocean.
He heard the grunt of a train horn. The train was coming toward him.
He spun the car around to face the train. He thought that the engineer would see the car’s headlights. He thought the engineer would come to his senses and pull the train to a stop. The dawn light slanting down submerged the weak beams of the headlights.
He pushed open the door of the car. He stood beside the car and screamed. He screamed at the train.
He watched. He could not believe what he was seeing.
The train was twenty cars long. The train did not stop. The locomotive hit the water first. Like an ancient serpent sliding back into the sea.
He fell to his knees in the mud.
How could he go to the cops and give himself up? Fuck.
Horror faded. A smile played across his lips.
The sunrise lit the ocean to the east blood red. The sun looked like a skull, rising from the surface of the water.