“Come up”, he said, pointing at the stairs, “We can have lunch together – pasta with pesto – I even got us cheese from Metro. Extra-Swiss, a special treat”.
“Sounds amazing! What’s Metro?” I asked.
“Oh, you’re gonna love it! it’s a big Western supermarket – expat paradise! They’ve got everything, cheese, chocolate, wine, and beautiful fresh meat. I go once or twice a month to stock up. I’ll take you.”
Expat paradise? What was he talking about: I came here for the real experience. I can get Swiss cheese back home anytime. I followed him up a flight of public stairs on the side of a wall, next to a “Flavours of Shaanxi” noodle shop. The stairs were weird, like everything else in Nanjing. There were steps in the middle, wide enough for one and a half person; on each side of them was a diagonal slope, maybe for bikes or shopping trolleys – but I still struggled with my pull-along suitcase.
“Do you need any help?” He said.
“I’m fine.” He was generous enough to let me stay with him, I shouldn’t bother him with my suitcase.
I turned back towards the street when I reached the landing. Parked cars, next to golden lions. A busy cross-roads. Tall buildings in the distance, half hidden by the romantic haze of smog.
We walked up the lane towards his place. “There’s been works here non-stop”, he said, “since I arrived, they’ve dug up this road, like, six or seven times.”
“What were they digging for?” I asked.
“Water pipes, gas pipes, other water pipes – maybe gold – or just for the sake of it. It should be quiet now. The mayor got sacked, did you read about it? Too much digging, that brought him down.”
We passed along a sheltered area where old people sat with their dogs, playing cards. Piles of construction material, debris and rubbish in all shapes and colours were scattered left and right.
At the end of the laneway, we turned into a courtyard: “Welcome to my xiao qu”, he said, moving slightly to the left, inviting me to go past him. “It’s not glamorous, but it’s authentic. You’ve got the cats, you’ve got the plants, there’s clothes drying on the line, and every morning, there’s a lady practicing martial arts with a sword… come, I live up there.”
He took me up two flights of stairs, and gave me the key. “The door’s hard – try it,” he pointed at a little bump on the side of the key, “that bit goes up, like that.” I forced a little, and the key turned in the lock.
“I’ll go in first, come”. He grabbed my suitcase and invited me in.
This was my first time visiting a Chinese apartment, and I was a bit surprised to find it so normal. A main living area with a table, four chairs and a sofa; bathroom and kitchen to the left, a door to the bedroom on the right. Walls, floor, ceiling, windows.
“Welcome! Let me show you round the place – it’s not big, but it’s big enough. I’m sorry that it’s not very clean: I’ve been out a lot, and in China, things just seem to get dirty. By the way, is it ok to take off your shoes? I’ve got these for you.” He grabbed a pair of gray plastic sandals, and put them on the floor in front of me. “Chinese custom.”
I put my suitcase away and started the usual chat while he made lunch for us. I’d been to China before, but only visited the big cities – Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong. I’d been on couch-surfing for three years, and thought it was a great way to meet people. I wasn’t afraid that someone would kill me, the worst that ever happened was a very boring guest. I did an imitation, he laughed, ice was broken.
He was originally from the States, Vermont. He got a three-year scholarship to study business at Nanjing University. First he lived on campus, but the dorm was horrible. He got this apartment through one of his Chinese friends. It was an old building, there were lots of problems, but the rent was cheap, and the location was great. I could stay with him for three nights, and he would help me find somewhere to live.
We weren’t always going to sleep together. These things appear like the result of purely physical forces, circumstances, fate, lust. But isn’t it in our power to resist, and for that very reason, isn’t giving in always a deliberate decision? Isn’t pleasure about willingly falling into the trap?
“That was very nice”, he said afterwards, “I had a really good time.” And the whole thing was actually very nice, not only because he was gently massaging my leg now. But that made my situation more complex. Did it mean I could stay longer than three nights? Or that I should prepare to leave earlier?
After lunch and coffee, we’d spent a whole afternoon together. He generously took me to the bank and the phone company, showed me the campus, market and supermarket. Then we sat down inside an underground bookstore, exploring the subtle differences between the US and Australia.
He took me to dinner at a local favourite, Harbin dumplings. “They make them fresh here everyday,” he commented as I gushed over my first bite of pork and coriander, “and it’s so cheap – you’ll come back.”
Later we met one of his friends at the ‘Burglars’ paradise’ beer cafe. “There’s a sister State relationship with Jiangsu, so the condition for my scholarship was, it had to be Nanjing. That’s how I found myself here. But I thought, why not – and it’s free money: might as well take it.” Then, to the friend: “What’s your favourite thing about the city?” She needed cues. He smiled: “Anyone for another beer?” That’s when I made my decision to give in.
Seasons passed, leaves fell, and one day men came with ladders and saw to prune the branches over the public staircase. By then, I was a local, and “Spicy Hunan” replaced “Flavours of Shaanxi”.
Sometimes, when I came back from errands or classes, I would look out from the top of the steps. I would gaze at the tall buildings in the distance, marvelling at the sunset oranges and pink smog. Or if night had fallen, I would follow the lights of the passing cars, buses and scooters flowing through the crossroads. People still met there, by the golden lions, like we met five months ago.
“Lucky there was a hospital nearby!” he was bleeding a lot, “and lucky you were staying with me.” He laughed. “That would be the best ad for couch-surfing.”
I tried explaining how the shower glass door suddenly shattered from the jackhammer vibrations, but I’m not sure the doctor understood. I sat nearby as he picked out each little shard, one by one, from his body.
“If I have to spend the night here, I don’t know, would you like to stay at my place a bit longer? I mean, until I can help you look for your own apartment.” I smiled. “It’s my first time inside a Chinese hospital, and I get to practice the language. Hard-core travel, that’s what I came for.”
The following day, something felt a bit wrong in his left arm. I pushed him to call his parents, who spoke to the doctors, and then again to him.
“Can I ask you something weird?” he said, “I need someone to pack stuff for me.”
In the end, I never had to look for my own place to stay. The glass had slightly damaged a nerve. He wouldn’t lose mobility, but he needed medical attention, and he couldn’t come back to China rightaway. “Would you like to take over the lease?” he wrote in his email, “here’s the number of my landlord – I think by local standards, he’s OK.” It was an old building and there were problems – the plumbing, the grease on the kitchen window, the constant works outside – but the rent was cheap, and the location was great.
We started long distance, not committing, just exchanging voice messages and photos on WeChat. Sausages drying on the street. A dog dressed as a fairy. Early morning sun over lake Winnipesaukee. The pesto shelves at Metro. I thought I would be gone before he came back. And when I signed up for a second term, it wasn’t only for him.
We met by the golden lions. “I’ll help you with your suitcase,” I said, as we walked up the steps. He smiled and let me do it. “Seriously, half of it is chocolate for you.”
Old people sat under the shelter, playing cards. The suitcase clacked on the gravel as we passed, one of their dogs barked. “Oh look,” he said, “Fat dog’s come to say hello.”
That’s when I made my decision to give in.
NOTE: This story is the first in a planned series of #52, recomposing my memories of a term in China through fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This story was written with the help of DraftQuest. Image and story are copyright @julienleyre.