Loz, black and lovely, is here in China on business. She says she buys cheap electronics—Japanese mostly—and sends them home to Ethiopia. She says she has an Italian boyfriend. She says she’s leaving China tomorrow.
We sit on little plastic stools at three am beneath a rumbling overpass. A man nearby is cooking kebabs. Burning lamb, not an unpleasant smell. Next to him, a woman wearing a shabby green hijab stands guard, and beside them two small children sit at a table writing on pages torn from an exercise book. There is horrible techno throbbing from a bar where my co-workers are.
Loz’s English is simple and stilted, unsure yet of which words to drop, which sounds to push together.
‘Will your boyfriend stay?’ I ask.
‘He is in Ethiopia,’ she replies.
I have to ask questions if I want to know anything and I do: he is nice; he sells T-shirts; he is tall. My interrogation is interrupted—another young, black woman gets out of a taxi, looks suspiciously at me, sits and speaks to Loz. I look at their hair. Loz’s has suffered some kind of chemical abuse in order to be so straight; her friend’s is lush and curly.
The techno blasts momentarily and is then muffled as Michelle exits. I watch her stagger slightly as she marches towards the road, then veer towards me.
‘What’re you sitting out here for?’ she asks, lighting a cigarette.
I explain that I’ve promised Emma that she could stay at my place.
‘That club is shite,’ she says.
‘The music is shite,’ she says.
I heartily agree, indicating the plastic stool I’m sitting on, the location, the lateness of the hour—all preferable to that horrible noise.
But not only the noise—inside on elevated stands, behind the frantic staff trying to keep up with the thirst of the crowd, are two Chinese women. They are dressed in faux-western attire—ripped denim shorts, cowboy boots, plaid shirts tied up under their breasts—and they dance badly. They focus on some point in the distance. They don’t smile. At the back of the bar near the bathrooms, is a cage where a woman, probably Russian, gyrates. She wears a bikini.
Another co-worker comes out—a grossly overweight man with a handlebar moustache. He is accompanied by a skinny blonde woman.
‘I like him,’ Loz says.
‘He’s very happy.’
Ah…he’s a regular.
We watch negotiations take place in the open doorway of a waiting taxi.
I wonder when Emma will come out.
Earlier, in my apartment, I waited for Michelle to text. I sat looking around at my newly leased apartment—the glassy tiles, the floor-to-ceiling windows, a triptych of pods, poorly painted in vile shades of orange. I’ve slept here for three nights.
A new country, a new job and, word was, a party.
I was paralysed with fear—of being asked to go, of not being asked to go. There were so many new people I’d met in the last two weeks, and I’d spent a lot of energy—all I had—on trying to connect. I didn’t want to make the same mistake I’d made before of taking it too slow, trying to find out who I liked and who I didn’t.
Put yourself out there. You’re too old for this shit. Come on!
I edged forward on the brown IKEA sofa.
Get up, idiot.
I stood, wobbly as a newborn foal, and wondered what I was supposed to do next.
Such an idiot.
Shower? No, I’d already had one.
Such a fucking idiot.
I slumped back on to the sofa, defeated.
I felt the rage well up, erupt, overwhelm me. In a fury, I pummelled my thighs with both fists, striking with each word: ‘You. Fucking. Stupid. Idiot.You. Stupid. Fucking. Cunt.’
Then it subsided, stealing away like an assassin, and I rubbed my thighs and stared blankly ahead until I heard the ding of the phone beside me.
I sat with a glass of wine in front of Emma and Michelle who sat on either side of Phil, the company Casanova, and all the three of them ignored me. My attempts to interact with two other co-workers, men whose names I couldn’t remember, had fallen flat. They sat there looking at their phones. Under the table I pressed my palms against my thighs.
I feigned interest in the soccer game being shown on the big TV in the corner, taking furtive glances at Luke, one of the men who’d done some of our training. An alpha-male, I watched him work the room, edging his way towards our corner. Behind me, unnoticed, a fellow newbie leaned against a table, alone.
‘Hey Rob,’ I said going over to him. ‘Didn’t see you there.’
‘Just got here,’ he said.
He was pleasant. We’d gotten on well during the last two weeks. We were from the same country. We’d once lived in the same city. After a while, he went to get another beer.
If he doesn’t come back, I’m going to be standing here on my own. Then what?
Luke appeared suddenly, smiling and friendly, and asked how the training had proceeded. Then Rob came back and there was I was, engaged in conversation with not one, but two men. And others joined: Michelle detached herself from Phil; a man who’d been living in China for a decade needed to make that known; a woman who didn’t introduce herself, but seemed known to everyone else, stood quietly in the circle; Emma flitted around, alighting on groups like a butterfly. A select few were invited outside by Luke to take cocaine.
On and on it went; people stayed and got terribly drunk, or left. I watched the ones leaving—politely excusing themselves, or unapologetically just walking out. I was riveted to the spot as firmly as if I’d grown roots. Then, it was two am, the pub was closing, we were all standing on the street. I lived around the corner.
I could be home in five minutes.
The Cave is a great bar, someone said.
A fucking dive, someone else said.
In the back of the taxi, Emma said, ‘God knows where I’m sleeping tonight.’
‘You can stay at my place,’ I offered.
The door to the bar was sickly green and I followed them downstairs to a hot, airless basement. The others who’d already arrived had merged into the crowd of expats who circled the bar and the dancing girls. I stood at the bar and thought better of it; I’d drunk enough. I saw Luke—briefly illuminated by the flashing lights—among a row of men pumping their fists in time to the techno beat, gazes fixed on the women. Rabid jackals.
I found a place to stand. People were coming and going on their way to the bathroom, or to watch the woman in the cage. A man stood in front of me for a full minute appraising me, then nodded his approval and walked away. Luke pushed by me holding a pint of beer that sloshed onto my sandalled feet.
I found Emma and told her I’d wait outside.
Loz’s friend goes into the bar, and Loz looks at her phone. Two other young black women are sitting nearby, but they haven’t acknowledged her.
I stare at the moon, remote and devoid of life; white chalk some child has scribbled on a blackboard. I went, once, to a photographic exhibition of space exploration—black and white, floor-to-ceiling pictures of the moon and from the moon. Men stood alone and brave by their craft, weighted by heavy suits. Satellites hovered like weird mechanical insects above the earth. I wandered through the rooms alone; no-one else, it seemed, was interested on that weekday afternoon. In the museum’s gift shop I bought a poster of the moon for $15, intending to have it professionally framed. It is rolled up in cardboard tube in a storage unit now.
I imagine myself wearing a shiny suit, carefully checking the cable that tethers me to my rocket, before releasing my grip.
‘Loz,’ I say. ‘Look at the moon.’
‘The moon,’ I repeat and point.
‘Ah, yes,’ she say and smiles.
People—men, and the women they’ve paid for—get in and out of taxis. Beside us, the children eat something from plastic bowls while their mother adjusts her veil and looks vacantly out at the street.
I float. I drift around the hunk of metal, mindful of whatever task it is I’m supposed to be doing, tools hanging from my belt, but there is the lure of profound silence to deal with. The temptation of effortlessness. The certainty of an end.