by Danielle LeClerc

Slow jazz notes slink over from the bar behind me. Smudged at the margins by stripes-on-paisley beats from other restaurants along the darkened strip. An available taxi cruises lazily up the street in perfect tempo with the singer’s sad, soulful words. Her voice cracks on the chorus, some stuff about a last night together.

The sauvignon blanc is dry and woodish on the roof of my mouth. I swallow, and lick my lips a little longer than is strictly polite. Mosquitoes drift by from time to time, back-lit by candle light, and I draw my legs up onto the chair, crossing them under me to save my bloody ankles. I can already feel the skin beginning to prickle and swell. Headlights catch in my wineglass, drawing my attention. I tip the alcohol against my lips and a single, cold bead of condensation rolls down the stem, curving along the glass base, and plunks on my ankle. I shiver in the wet, ripe heat.

Reach for a cigarette, “Shanghai”: the brand is a boast in red, splashed across a gold box. English on one side, Chinese on the other. It’s etched with images of the Pearl Tower, the World Financial Centre, and Jin Mao. Collectively Lujiazui; the same part of town in which I am now sitting.  This is Pudong, only 15 years old. So much cleaner and more modern than Puxi, on the west side of the Huang Pu river. It still has its wet markets, bicycle delivery men, and watermelon-slash-cell phone-vendors, just fewer of them. Modern is a relative term. But it has none of the twisty lanes crammed mouth to mouth with apartments on top of shops on top of restaurants. None of the surreal bar districts, flaming in regurgitated Koolaid neon shock; no old trees casting leaf patterns on 1930s brick work in the ginger coloured street lamps. No soul. I order more wine.

Two bats spin and dive together against the cliff face of Super Brand Mall; strangers caught in a brief animal embrace that cannot be fully articulated. The usual neon signs, cast enormously so they may be seen from the Bund across the river, light up membranous wings, animating their gyrations against the blackish sky. What do they feel when they whirl within a whisker length of each other?  How do we look, rendered in sonar?

I light the “Shanghai” and take a long drag; no need to rush. “Buddies” reads the lighter. That’s the only English on it. It’s one of the collection of local convenience store lighters I’ve robotically amassed. Buddies. C Store. Family Mart. Sparkle Q. Lawson’s. All Days. Everything but 7-11, which is new, and  doesn’t count. These I have set aside to fly home with me on Friday so that I can look cool, pulling them out in company. Conspicuously not Canadian. That, and simple, stupid nostalgia. Three continuous years in Asia. Home. Not a label that feels right any place I stick it anymore. Not Shanghai, where I wandered the lus and alleys: French Concession, Jing’an, Nanjing lu, People’s Square. An alien, obvious in my dissent among the masses on the street. Where I took solitary meals, spent Christmasses in the silence of my old apartment, and Chinese New Year, near as a shadow. All those fireworks, and nothing more to hope for. Fuck the Tiger and 2010 in general.

“Home”, and not Canada, either. The Big Empty: a hundred million miles with nothing in between. It’s entire population just slightly out-peopling this city’s 20 million. Will they understand that I’m not Canadian any more? That maybe I’m not much of anything. A loosely arranged mind, drifting across the planet? 100 floors up the World Financial Centre today, staring out across the city. The day fading into the past, and all the storybook lights came on like wet diamonds. My tears rolled and rolled among the tourists and their cameras, and I strained at the abyss, pressed against the glass but could not see Xujiahui, where I had lived.

“Eleven, eleven, eleven,” say the bells of the old British commerce building from across the river. It’s too hot and I’ve got to get out of here.

“Fuyuan, mai dan.”