A nightclub in Chengdu. The floor vibrates. My legs jiggle like jackhammers. The Chinese promoter Catherine dispenses more Jäger like medication to us three outsiders. All wearing fluffy panda hats for some reason, we’re taking silly photos with others and I bow in front of groups of girls like in ancient times or do the kungfu ‘respect’ stance with a fist into a straight palm. They giggle and mirror my movements. I’m making out with a girl in a white T-shirt and she purposely bites my tongue. I push her away and say fuck off, curious about what kind of person she must be.
Catherine’s mind looks somewhere else. I want to find out more about her, if she does this almost every night and if she’s fulfilled, what does she really hope for when she’s lying in bed alone, what’s the thing from her past holding her back. But when I touch her palm and yell into her ear, the deafening music slams my weakening voice and I realise this place sucks, only allowing surface hi-fives and empty laughter.
White T-shirt waves from a booth and the Jäger is hitting me hard and, shit, why am I sitting with my arm around this girl now? My tongue is tentative. Her lips are wild fruits. Smudged mulberries on my cheek. We’re walking off and her hand is numb and the elevator drops us to a bright lobby.
Taxis line the curb. Jumping in the front seat I tell the driver “Shuangqiaolu” and show him Shuangqiao Road station on the metro app. My place is only 15 minutes away. After 20 minutes, something doesn’t feel right. I check the map on my phone and we’ve headed the complete opposite direction, out of the city. White T-shirt has overridden me and given her address.
“What the fuck?” I turn to the back seat. She doesn’t respond.
After 45 minutes, we’re out of the taxi and she’s arguing with the driver. The street is empty. Trees from a park across the road create pleasant, clean air – a facade of a place where good things happen. She waves her phone, claiming she paid with the WeChat or AliPay app, I guess. But the driver dismisses it, motioning his hands fiercely and raising his voice.
I get between them, trying to mediate and find out the exact problem. She won’t say anything to me, just keeps yelling in Mandarin. At this point I don’t even know how much of my English she understands.
A policeman comes over, but the arguing doesn’t stop. Seems like she’s gonna hit the driver. She speed-walks away, up the street, receding into the distance, leaving me with the cop and taxi driver and I don’t know what to do and the Jäger’s wearing off and I shiver. The cop won’t let me leave. I stand waiting. At least the air is fresh.
A few minutes later, she’s striding back. Half a dozen police officers are here now with a paddy-wagon and two sedans, lights flashing. She’s going crazy – yelling and pacing around. I don’t even want to sleep with her at this point; I just want to get out. I ask a cop through a translate app what’s happening – he says she hasn’t paid the 49 yuan fare. Waving a 100 yuan note, I tell her it’s okay and I’ll cover it. She refuses and holds her hands out stiff like claws. I give the driver the note and he hands me change and walks back to his car. Approaching the paddy wagon, she tries opening the front passenger door. Locked.
“What are you doing? Let’s go! Let’s get out of here!” I say and grab her. She shakes her head. Brushes me away. The police grab her and put her in the back of the paddywagon. Jesus Christ. I start walking off but they signal me to come too, in the back seat.
On the way to the station, she’s still acting hysterical. I tell her to shut up and an officer says in English, “Listen to him.”
At the station, the officers have her in a room while I sit on a chair in the foyer. Still, she’s unsettled and out of control, pacing around. I rest my eyes.
I picture myself as a kid, walking home from school, snatching mulberries from someone’s overhanging tree. Running away, laughing, with a bucket full of sweet treasure, purple stains on my shirt reminders of my wrongdoing.
Her yelling alerts me. In the foyer she tries walking towards the front entrance and slips over. Two officers grab her from the floor and take her back to the room. For a second, I consider bailing into the darkness, away from her to ease my rage.
Through an app, I ask an officer if I can leave, as I have no part in this; it’s her problem and I haven’t wronged anyone – I even paid the fare. He asks if she’s my girlfriend or what our relationship is. I say we met tonight and I lie that we were going to meet friends at my place, but she told the driver her address.
I’m asked for my passport. I only have a photo of it on my phone but I need a charger, so they find a power bank.
Talking to the supervisor now, he takes all my details, wants my visa information and everything. I flatter him with praise of how well he’s handling this. He chuckles and thanks me for co-operating.
An hour later, I’m allowed to leave. I ask them to call a taxi, but because we’re in the middle of fucking nowhere, there are none. Walking out, I don’t even peer in White T-shirt’s direction. I head straight for the door.
Two officers drive me 15 minutes to find a taxi. The driver says 70 yuan to my place. I say no, since it’s almost 6AM. I’ll take the metro soon. The cops drive me further to the nearest station and I get Chinese breakfast from a road stall before the first train.
At 7:15, I get to Shuangqiao Road station with the sun well up. Walking home, I buy a loaf of bread from Family Mart, thinking the shenanigans surely need to stop. With each step on the pavement I hear her heart pounding and my rage melts to pity.
Entering my sun-lit apartment on the twenty-second floor, I face the bathroom mirror. My bruised tongue is a precursor, the purple cheek a prompt of my own doing. I try to wash off the lipstick but it only smears more and I give up.
Lying on my bed I wonder who has hurt her. Where is she bruised? What pain does she feel alone in the comfort of her sheets?
Construction work on the site next door has already begun. Cranes beep. I close the curtain.
Cover by Jason Blackeye