Friday, September 10, 2010

After The Flood

I rolled my pantlegs back down on my way up the stairs. One of my students darted past and bid me HAH-LOO. I waved. I felt around in my pocket to see how many cigarettes I had left. Not enough. Never enough. I kicked open the wrought iron security gate with graceless ease. And there on the second floor of the Laowai Projects, I found Jacob, Andrew, and Micah sitting out in the hallway with their laptops, well, atop their laps, as it were.

"Dude. Dudes," I said, "y'all should come check it out. The campus is flooding."

No reply.

"I mean, the water is climbing the stairway to campus. It was almost to the top, last I checked."

Jacob laughed into his monitor and slapped his thigh. Micah grumbled to himself. Moose belched, then lifted up his laptop to scratch his junk.

"Guys, I don't know how to tell you this," I said, biting my lower lip, "but I'm thinking about getting a sex change."

Nothing. I shrugged and lit a cigarette. I walked down to the end of the hall and blew my exhaust out the window. Then I snubbed the cigarette on the windowsill and flicked it over the edge. And then I walked back down the hall and stood there watching the three of them watch whatever they were watching.

"What the hell is this?" I asked. "A fucking teleconference?"
"Naw, man," said Jacob. "The hallway's the only place we can get internet."
"Oh. That's cool. Hey. Look. I gotta take a piss. But in the meantime, the campus is flooding, dude." I tipped my hat. "Dudes."

I stepped over the three of them one leg at a time, found my door, and pressed my keycard against the lock. Nothing happened.

"Fuck," I said. "My keycard's broken."
"Naw, man," said Jacob. "They all broken. You gotta get the Missus to let you in."
"The Missus?"
"Yeah. She's in there."
He gestured towards a half-open door at the end of the hall.
"Yo, Keith. Before you go in," said Moose, "would or wouldn't?"
"Would or wouldn't what?"
He nodded towards the Missus' door and raised his eyebrows.
"Oh. That," I sighed. "Well, how the hell would I know? I haven't even seen the Missus yet."

I found the Missus cross-stitching in her office. Or her apartment. Or whatever it was. I cleared my throat. She looked up. I looked down. Then I looked back up. And I blushed a bit. True. The Missus was not exactly an eyestrain.

"Qingwen," I said. Excuse me, I said.

But she already knew what I wanted. She swept a jangle of keys off the table and followed me to my room.

"Xie xie," I said as the door scrolled open. Thank you. And I bowed, however slightly.
"Bu yong xie," she said. You're welcome.

I smiled. The Missus didn't smile back. But she did give me a look. Or was it a look? Yes, I decided, it was a definite look. A sultry look. Or was it really all that sultry of a look? Yes, I decided, it was definitely a sultry kind of look. Or was it? Then the Missus turned away without a word and jangled off down the hallway while I stood there wondering.

My room was bare and dark and unusually clean. For lack of a filth to wallow in, I returned to the teleconference in the hallway.

"You guys work for Google or something?"
"You never answered me," said Moose. "Would or wouldn't?"
"That's a complicated question," I said, gazing towards the Missus' room.
"What's so complicated about it?"
"The question."

Moose was watching Youtube footage of a turtle humping a rock. Jacob was watching the Thrilla in Manilla. Team Leader Micah was lesson planning for tomorrow.

Moose giggled girlishly.

Micah groaned.

Jacob cackled and stomped his feet.

"Damn! Goddamn! Get it, Clay! Get it!" he shouted at the screen. "Goddamn, Muhammad!"

A bell rang. End of Round Six.

"Hey yo, Keith - beer run!"
"What? Dude, I went on three beer runs last night."
"You were late. Dude."
"I know I was late," I said, "but it wasn't even my fault this time."
"This time is right."

I half-sighed, half-grumbled.

"Man, no more beer runs for me. I'm done," I said. "I think I pulled a bicep last night. I'm not lugging another 16-pack of shitty Snow all the way across town for you inglourious basterds."
"I think I pulled a bicep last night," whined Jacob, throwing his voice up a few octaves.
"Fuck off. And anyway, I'm broke."
"Bitch, I'm broke," rapped Moose.
Then he balled his fist and beatboxed, poorly.

He was referencing an obscure Cody ChesnuTT track by the name of "Bitch, I'm Broke" - an absurd, obscene, charmingly lo-fi, delightfully lowbrow hip-hop jam that that only Moose and I and maybe four other people in the entire world knew about at the time, a jam that the other seven volunteers would come to know and hate altogether too well before the end of the two-week Dazhou Experiment.

"Hey, where's Katie?" asked Moose, after a beat. "She'd probably go get us some pijius."
"I haven't seen her since lunch," said Micah. "At the cafeteria. I mean, the canteen."
"Yeah, where she at?" asked Jacob. "That girl owes me Oreos."
"Yeah. Told her to go to Wal-Mart and get me some Oreos."

Then the power went out.

"Fuck!" said Moose.
"Shit!" said Jacob.
Micah shrugged and resumed typing.

The hallway was dark. Moose's turtles were frozen in mid-hump. Muhammad Ali was suspended in mid-punch like a pinned-down butterfly.

"Told you," I said. "The campus is flooding. It's the end of days. The Rapture, and what have you. Moose - beer run!"

Moose paid and I carried. In the meantime, Micah, as Team Leader, ran down to the store and bought nine flashlights and a shit ton of candles. We set up shop in Moose's room. Twenty-four hours into the Dazhou Experiment and the dude's clothes were already strewn all over the floor. But the candles lent the place a kind of churchy ambiance. A Catholic grotto mystique. Everything reeked of feet and booze. But it was an awfully romantic venue nonetheless. With the candles and what not.

While the rest of us shot the bullshit, Moose lay there in bed in front of his laptop. Gunshots rang out and police sirens wailed from across the room.

"Yo, Keith. You ever played this?" Moose asked.
"What is it?" I asked, peering over his shoulder. "Grand Theft Auto?"
"Naw, man."
"Jesus," I said. "Is that who I think it is? The guy in the car?"
"Yeah. Probably."
"No. Wait. Wait," I stammered. "Wait. You're telling me that's _____?"
"And you're shooting him."
"I guess so. If you want to put it that way."
"There's no way to put it," I said.
"That's just how it is," followed Jacob.
And Jacob and I fist-pounded, having tag-team quoted the one movie we can both agree on. But nobody noticed. They just thought we were weird.

"Where the hell did you get this?" I asked.
"The internet," said Moose. "You can find it online. But that's the only place you can get it. The company went out of business a while ago. For some reason the game didn't - fuck!"
"I just shot ______ in the crotch, but I didn't finish him. Goddammit. That goldbricking sonofabitch."
"Jesus," said Jacob.
"Christ," I said.

The door creaked open and Kevin, my handler, peeked his normal-sized head into the room.

"Keith," he said, all wispy-like. "Keith."
"What's up?"
"What are you doing right now?"
"I can't tell you what I'm doing right now," I said. "I am currently an accomplice to a historical tragedy that I want no part in."
"Let me see," he said, and wrapped his arm around my shoulder.

"Jesus Christ, Moose," said Jacob. "You are a depraved human being, you know that?"
"Who is he? The man with the head blood?" asked Kevin. "Is he Jesus Christ?"
"Far from it," I said. "That's _____. Moose just assassinated him."
"Ass-ass ate him?"
"More or less."
"Who is _____?" asked Kevin.
"He was a great man," said Jacob, "until Moose ass-ass ate him."
"Plus four bodyguards," said Moose, "plus the driver. 750 points total. Like I said: booyah."
"You are shooting him? For pleasure?" asked Kevin.
"Don't look at me," I said. "Moose is the lone gunman here. It's his game. I'm just watching it."

Round after round, replay after replay, Kevin stared at the screen until I could see the ocular fluid glazing his eyes like a pair of glutinous rice balls. Then he embraced me, stood up and left.

The rest of the volunteers trickled in eventually. They came bringing frankincense and beer. And it was good. We bullshat by candlelight. The night progressed. Then it digressed. Then it regressed, as nights are so wont to do.

"What the hell is wrong with you? It's a Terrible. Fucking. Movie!"
"But you just admitted that it was a great performance," I countered.
"I never said that."
"You just did! Thirty seconds ago!"
"Actually, I don't usually agree with Keith," said Moose, "but Jacob, you did say that it was a great performance. In a terrible fucking movie."
"Okay, so what? Maybe it was a great performance. From a fucking psychopath. Who actually believed that he was an oil tycoon from the 1900's. A great performance, maybe. But that doesn't un-make it a terrible fucking movie."
"Look, man," I said, "I watched it again the other day and - "
"You been watchin' it six times a day ever since I gave you the DVD! Which you never returned, by the way."
"That's not true. I only watched it six times a day when you first gave it to me. I've been cutting back - "
"And when you gonna give it back?"
"Why do you even want it back? I thought it was a terrible fucking movie."
"It is a terrible fucking movie! My God, it's the worst movie ever made. But it's still my property. I bought it. For twenty dollars. In America. The light of the world."
"I'll give it back. I promise. Once I'm done with it."
"Yeah. Done jerking off to it six times a day."

An "ooh" from the crowd. I rolled my eyes.

"Anyway," I said, "I watched it a couple nights ago. For the first time since January, I'll have you know. And I realized something. For a long time, I thought about the film in terms of Capitalism vs. Christianity. But then, the last time I watched it, I realized that I was looking at everything the wrong way. The film is actually about - "
"Yo, where's Katie?" asked Moose.
"Last I heard, she was going to Wal-Mart," said Jeesun.
"Yeah. Girl owes me Oreos," muttered Jacob.
"Yeah. Oreos. What? You don't know what Oreos are? Girl, you call yourself an American? Fuckin' Oreos. Damn."

A tense silence. Then Jacob started giggling.

"Right," said Team Leader Micah. "I'm gonna see if I can get a hold of Katie."
He called. No answer.
He called again. Still no answer.
"Weird," he said, and put his Team Leader cellphone back in his Team Leader pocket.

A few minutes later, the IT Guy sent me, of all people, a message telling us that we were, under no circumstances, to leave the dorm that night.

"Water is everywhere," he wrote.
"And not a drop to drink," I said to myself.
"What? Who the hell are you talking to, man?" asked Jacob.
"Nobody. Hey. The handlers say we're not supposed to leave the dorm tonight."
"Cool. We still got time for one more beer run though, right?"
I said nothing.
"Hey yo! Moose!"

Moose bought and I carried. It was like the Day of the Dead outside. A morbidly festive occasion. The weirdly dark streets were crammed with people holding candles. One end of the main drag was cordoned off and sandbagged, and a crowd had gathered there. The Chinese riffraff wandered about, carrying candles in their palms, gawping at the raging river, chattering about the flood, smoking, hawking loogeys. Street vendors were hawking candles for five kuai a pop. Candles. Get yer candles. A good day for the candle men. I lit a cigarette and instinctively offered one to Moose. He took it.

"... the hell? You smoke?"
"Yeah," said Moose. He produced his own lighter. "Fuck it, man. It's China."

The flickering candlelight lit our way to the Gettin' Place.

"It is apocalypse season," I said to Moose. "Maybe we should stock up on bottled water and ramen noodles. And firearms, while we're at it."
"I know, right?"
We bought beer.
In the dark, I stumbled over an embankment and the bottles clattered in their case. Then I stumbled over an abutment and regained my footing.
"Panda, if you drop my fucking beer, you're not even gonna live to see the apocalypse."

When we got back to Moose's room, the freeloaders snatched up our beers, but we managed to sneak a couple for ourselves. I sat down next to Jacob. And the night progressed. And digressed. And regressed.

"What is wrong with you? You're saying that hearing and sight are the same fucking thing? You're saying that ears and eyes are the same fucking organs?"
"They're not," I said. "I'm just saying that the way a bat perceives reality, well, I don't know. Because I'm not a bat. I'm just saying that bats probably see sounds and hear sights, so to speak. I don't think the organs involved really matter. Sound and vision come from the same waves at different wavelengths, so whether it's eyes or ears, it doesn't really matter. It's not about the senses, or the wavelengths. It's about perception - "
"But sound waves and light waves are different," said Moose.
"Are they?" I asked.
"They are."
"Two completely fucking different things," agreed Jacob.
"I didn't know that. I'll have to look it up. I don't know shit about science. I'm kind of a hack," I said.
"Yes," said Jacob. "You are."

"Mind if I smoke up in here?" I asked Moose.
"As long as you don't ash on my floor."
"I won't. I promise." I lit up. I coughed. Ash flew everywhere. Moose glowered. "My bad. But look. Anyway. What I'm saying is this: when a bat processes sounds, it can't possibly be hearing them the way we hear sounds. Bats fly around in dark caves for a living. And they fly really fucking fast. They find shit to eat in the dark. They find mates in the dark. They get it on with she-bats. In the dark. So they can't be hearing in the same way we do. Bats must have evolved the ability to form mental pictures very similar to the ones we see when we see things, only they use sound waves to form those pictures. Otherwise they couldn't - "
"Pictures? Pictures? But pictures are sight, man! You can't hear pictures! You're contradicting yourself! What is wrong with you?"
"I mean mental pictures, dude. Images. Like when you listen to a baseball game on the radio. Or when you're reading a book. You can't see the players, you can't see the story, but you form a - "
"Hey yo," said Moose, "where's Katie?"
"Lemme call her again," said Micah, who had been watching our conversation the same way you watch your dog lift its leg on a lamppost when you're taking it out for a late night walk.

The bat debate raged. The night regressed. Nobody had an opener, so Moose uncapped everyone's bottles with the butt-end of a lighter, a skill I admire but have yet to master. And then Micah started jumping up and down and shooshing us. He had found Katie. In the sudden silence, the digitized sound of a weeping female was audible.

"You're where? ... Where? Okay. So you're okay. You're at a hotel. ... A nice hotel. ... With room service. Sweet. ... Are you okay? ... Good. Good. That's good. ... You what? ... You what? ... You wanted to swim across? The river. Jesus. You would've died, Katie. I mean, I've seen the river. You wouldn't have made it. ... No. No, you wouldn't have. ... I know you're a good swimmer. ... Look, class is important. But it's not that important. ... No, it's okay. No need to apologize. ... Okay. As long as you're okay. We'll see you tomorrow, alright? ... Okay. Okay. Hang in there. And don't worry about the - "

"Ooh," said Jacob, and he was so excited that he actually raised his hand. "What about the Oreos?"

Despite ourselves, we laughed. And laughed hard.

"Oh. ... Nothing. Jacob's just being ... Jacob. Yeah. Sleep tight."

Micah hung up. We giggled.

"You assholes," said Micah.

And we giggled some more.

We went to sleep at 27 AM and woke up the next morning at seven. Baggy-eyed and foul-breathed, I donned my glasses, brushed my teeth, and sucked down a pitcher of Moose's coffee. Katie had returned. The school had trucked her in from the other side of the river. She had teachers to teach, after all. The show must go on, after all.

I went outside to patrol the riverside promenade. There were no crowds. The sidewalk was a bit damp, but the campus had not flooded as prophesied. Students were flocking to class. I had to teach in ten minutes. Business as usual. The show would go on. The Rapture had not come, not just yet. The waters had risen, had left their filthy mark on the sodden grass of the floodplain, and then they had receded, overnight. The waters had returned to the river, where they belonged. I lit a cigarette. Beneath me I saw an innocent brown stream murmuring slowly past, a stream that rippled and waved but had not even the slightest intentions of overflowing its banks. A well-behaved, obedient river. Yes, sir. No, ma'am. Domesticated. Tranquilized. Etherized. Nature. Good nature. Good, good nature.

I taught my classes. I did my job. Then I skipped lunch and went back to my room for a three-hour nap. After that, I caught a cab downtown and took a walk along the other side of the river.

"See those restaurants?" an old fart peasant said to me. He pointed with his pipe to a row of hot pot joints nestled against the neck of the levee. "All of them were flooded last night. You can see it. Nothing left inside. All gone."
"And the bridge?" I asked.
"The bridge flooded, too. Couldn't cross it. The cabbies would tell you, 'No way.' Then they'd take you to an expensive hotel on the other side of the river. That's just what I heard. And that was last night, of course. Not a problem anymore."

It was hard to believe. The bridge arched a good fifty feet above the river as it stood then. But the bridge had flooded. Everywhere I walked that evening had been filled in with water only eighteen hours before. And now, life was going on as it usually does in China. Street vendors and cabbies. Mahjongg and Fight the Landlord. Shish-kebab stands and bang bang men. And assholes like me were coming in droves to walk along the river, to imagine the disaster that might have been. It was hard to believe. But the evidence was there. And quite a bit of water remained. I had to leapfrog my way to the riverfront along a trail of cinder blocks set down in the murky bog that the flood had left behind in its wake. The restaurant signs had been erased, and extra large Chinese hieroglyphics went coasting down the street in a shallow stream of dull brown sewage.

I parted the crowds on my way up to the bridge. Laowai, they said. Laowai. Foreigner. Foreigner. I stopped and leaned against the balcony overlooking the river, and I smoked. The pillars holding up the bridge were marked with Chinese characters, and I recognized the characters as "low," "medium," and "high." I could see the greasy smear left behind by the flood, and it was way higher than high. But there the dirty river lay, mumbling, muttering - it looked hungover. Now, it was way lower than low.

I crossed the bridge. I wandered until I was suitably lost. Then I stopped by an internet cafe. I checked my email and read from my parents that Tibbets, my twenty year-old tabby cat, was going to be put to sleep in a couple of days. I allowed myself to laugh. Twenty years of Mr. Tibbs. The lazy orange bastard. About time, I said. Lived a full life, I told myself. A lazy life. A good life. America's Favorite Fat Cat, I chuckled. Then I caught a cab back to campus. The party broke up at 27 AM and I got up at seven the following morning.

I walked to school. I smoked a quick one in the bathroom. In the hallway, Kevin, my handler, came out of nowhere and gripped me by the arm.

"Keith," he said. "Keith."
"Keith. I have something to talk about to you."
"Oh. Jesus. Is it the video game? Ah, Christ. I mean, look. It's not my game. I didn't download it. Hell, I have nothing to do with it. It's Moose's game. And let me tell you: Moose is kind of a douchebag. A goddamned lovable douchebag for sure, but - aw, Jesus. I'm sorry. Do you know what a douchebag is? No? Well, literally speaking, it is a hygienic implement that women use to - "
"Brother. It is not about dooshy bags," said Kevin. "It is about this: I feel I don't want to live anymore."
"What? Wait. Wait. What?"
"I feel I can't go around living any longer."

I chuckled a bit and clapped Kevin on the back.

"Aw, hell," I said. "Buddy, I feel like that every day. And yet, here I am!"
"No," said Kevin. "It is more reality than that. I am dying. Every day I am dying."
"Well, then. Ahem. Well. I am very sorry to hear that. Are you sick?"
"Yes. Very sick."

I looked Kevin over and noticed - how had I missed it? - that his head had almost doubled in size since the last time I'd seen him. Its newly acquired breadth was concentrated primarily in the lymph nodes. The man was quite literally gaining face.

"Now that you mention it," I said, "your head is looking pretty big these days."
"That is something else," he said. He took my hand and held it to his jaw. "Feel it? I have a cold. My head is swell."
"Swollen," I said.

Kevin took out his language notebook, jotted something down, and closed it. The bell rang.

"Well, I hope you get better," I said. "It's just a cold, right? It's not serious or anything?"
"Yes. It is just a cold."
"Good. That's good. I mean. I got some aspirin. Or actually, it's Un-Aspirin. I'm not sure what the difference is. The Peace Corps gave it to me. But it seems to work. Cures hangovers, at least. Check it. I got some right here in my pocket. You need some water to chase it down with? I can run to the store and - "
"No. Aspirin will not work. Water will not work. I feel like death. I want to die. Because of her."
He sighed until his body had all but deflated. It was then that I understood. I clapped my hands together.

"Oh! So it's lady troubles, is it?"
"Yes. I guess so," said Kevin.
"So you're not actually dying," I probed.
"Yes. I am. But not with disease."
"Good. Good. That's great news, Kevin. I am not a doctor. But women. Women I can deal with. What exactly went down, Kev?"
"I broke down with her."
"Broke up," I said.
"Broke up with her. We say break up, not broke down."

Kevin scribbled some more in his language notebook.

"Why did you break up with her?" I asked.
"We are always breaking down. And I wanted to stop breaking down with her."
"How long have you been dating?"
"Two years."
"And how often do you break up?"
"The number of instances is uncountable."
I nodded.
"I'm familiar with that one," I said. "That's bad news bears, right there, brother. Did she want to break up this time? Or was it your decision?"
"It was my idea. But now I am fear that I will regret it. For the rest of my life."
"Yeah. Regret is a bitch. But look," I said, "you have to stick to your guns. Stick to your guns - write that down. It means, you have to make a decision and - "
"Make a decision and don't ever look back."
"Exactly. You got it. And this is a big decision, my friend. And you've already made it. So you gotta run with that shit. Or else you'll drive yourself crazy."
"Thanks, man," he said, and there was a kind of glint in his eyes. "Now I feel - I feel that I can live."
"Right on. You gotta talk about these things. Or you'll drive yourself crazy. Plenty of ways of driving yourself crazy, and very few of them are very much fun at all."
"Yeah, man. Thank you. Can you hold me?"
"Er. Yeah. I mean. Sure. That's what brothers do, right? Hug it out."

I gave Kevin a hug and he cradled his baggy jaw on my shoulder. Then he pulled away.

"Now you had better go teach your class. You are already late," he said. "And we had better talk about this after class."
"Right on. Sounds good, man. Don't die. The prospect is tempting from time to time. But it's good to stay alive. See you in the cafeteria! I mean. The canteen!"
"No, man. I am coming with you."
"Oh, you're gonna - oh. I see. You're watching my class today?"
"Yes. I will watch your class every day. Now on."

I held the door for Kevin. He took a seat in the far back of the room and immediately put his head down and went to sleep. I'm not sure, I said to myself, if that counts as watching my class, Kev. But have it your way. I bid my students a good morning. We talked about the flood, but not for very long. They didn't seem interested in it. Then I popped open my lesson plan and remembered that the title of my class that morning was "Love Connection."

Vocabulary: break up (v.), split up (v.), heartbroken (adj.), get over (v.) ...

I peered across the room at Kevin, who was actually snoring by then. I shut my folder and stuck it back in my backpack. Then I took out the American Accent Training textbook and held it up in the air.

"Alright, kids. I mean. Adults. Open your books to page ... er ... ah ... um ... ah, yes. That's the one. Open your books to page 69."

And I allowed myself to giggle.

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