Greetings from a former tenant

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by James Weir

Dear M.,

Salutations from the other side of the world. Seven thousand miles later and it feels like my head has been put into a vice and shaken like a can of paint. The scenery has changed, the air here is thick with pollution and the noise of the busy streets is loud, even twelve floors closer to this grey, Chinese sky.

It’s only been three days, but America feels far, far away, and though I don’t mean to say that I wish I was back, that I wish things were different, I do feel strange here. It is hard to sleep, though I imagine that will pass. My days end early and in a cloudy fog of jet lag and alcohol. I fall asleep soundly and quickly only to wake at strange times of the night, or early in the morning, half a day ahead of everyone I’ve known.

I toss, I turn. I fall back asleep, fitfully, and I wake the same. I look out the window at the lights from the buildings, at the cars passing slowly. Taxi’s, mostly. When the sun rises around six I watch it come quickly. Then I sleep again. I close my eyes and pretend that it is nighttime. In these glimpses of sleep I have vivid dreams, the kind that come quickly and linger for awhile, in those sandy eyed moments where everything is warm and new, when the day hasn’t begun and yesterday isn’t quite finished.

You turned up this morning, which I suppose is why I find myself writing you. I was back in Vermont, and it was spring. We were together in a small garden. I watched you as you dug into rich black soil with a small spade. You took a plant, perhaps eight inches from the root to the tip of the tallest leaf, from one of those thin, plastic casings that you can buy at roadside flower markets, or at your local grocer, in packs of four, or six.

You planted it upside down, pushing the earth back into the small hole around the leaves, which left the roots somehow suspended above the ground. You looked back up at me and your hair swung around in a beautiful arc as you said, Look, this is the best way to plant them. I laughed. There was a haze around us, in the air. Rosy, almost. My mother showed me this trick, when I was a girl, you said. I didn’t say anything. As you stood from your crouch you rubbed your neck and dirt fell onto your shoulder and to the ground. You took my hand.

We stood there looking at your garden, and it was only then that I realized that each and every plant was growing backwards, that the largest of them were, before my eyes, shrinking downwards, their roots gyrating like worms. The smallest of the plants were burrowing into the dirt and vanishing. You watched me watch the plants, and with your free hand you took my forearm.

We went inside, into my house, the house which, I guess, is your house now. It was as things in dreams usually are, the same, but changed somehow, made better, conceived more strangely beautiful. The hallway had been painted, and those old bikes were gone. The stairs wound up and up. There were two chairs under the staircase. Between them was a small chess table, like the one that used to be in my bedroom. The pieces were at battle but the chairs were empty. I paused to look but you pulled me on. Your hands were covered in earth from your garden. You were smiling.

The kitchen was unchanged, and there was something simmering on the stove. Thin wisps of sweet smelling steam escaped from under a shining, silver lid, and drifted towards an open bottle of wine on the table, breathing beside two empty glasses. You led me on.

The bedroom was yours, not mine (not that I’ve seen the room as you keep it. But, it not being the way it was when it was my home, it seemed to me clear that it was of your making), though somehow my piano still filled the space next to the bed. You had hung a string of lights in an undulating pattern on hooks from the windows (which were enormous, and through which pale sunlight filtered) all across the northern wall towards the far corner, and the room, like the air in your garden, was rosy and strange. The piano was softly playing itself.

You pulled me onto your bed. I have never seen you as close as I was then, and this moment remains clearer to me than the rest of the dream, seems indelibly burned into my idea of you (for that is really all I have, just an idea, of you). I remember feeling something, some unnamable emotion that can only be attributed to moments like the moment we were then a part of, and somehow, it seemed to me perfect. I could smell you, could see your eyes just inches from mine. I ran my hand down your side, to your hip, under your knee, and back again.

We kissed then. And it progressed, as these things tend to, which somehow now seems inappropriate. But that is not what the dream was, not what it was about. We’ve all had those dreams, strange trysts with friends, ex lovers, celebrities, strangers, sometimes with the strangest of people under the strangest of circumstances. This was different. More intimate even. It wasn’t about that, couldn’t have been. You wake up at the end in those dreams, confused, sometimes disappointed, sometimes relieved, always aroused; but you wake up nonetheless.

We lay in bed afterward, warm, strangely comforted, strangely comfortable. I was sure then that we were together, had been for some time, that I knew you, and you me, as well as anyone could know another. That we were happy, even. I brushed your hair behind your ear with the backs of my fingers, kissed you on your collar bone. We were speaking softly, though about what I don’t know, or don’t remember. I just remember the feeling. Laughing softly, smiling, being together. This was most of the dream, the calmer world that comes after the excitement of those first moments, that something that comes together only to combust, either into pieces or into some beautiful, old painting that we’ve somehow found our place in. Sometime, I drifted away and awoke.

I don’t like waking in unfamiliar places. Mornings have always been the best for me, though I can never seem to remember that when my alarm goes off. Beginning my day confused has always struck me as vulgar somehow, crass, dissonant. It is a feeling that remains with me, shapes the day ahead even as I move on, and through, the world. Like falling asleep without brushing my teeth, awakening without something familiar to root me, without something to remind me of my life and what there is in it to look forward to, is something that I prefer not to do.

But I suppose that change never comes easily. The places that become our homes  were always at one time somewhere strange, somewhere new. But that passes. We adjust. We move on, become at ease with our surroundings, build new routines, start new lives. We must. It is the only way to face each day. And for now I wake, thankful yet reluctant, to face it head on, as best I can.

Yesterday I found a destruction zone. They were in the process of tearing down an entire neighborhood, an old part of Shanghai that whoever is in charge of those sorts of decisions doesn’t see being a part of the new Shanghai. There were stacks of clay roof tiles lining the alleyways, and the doors, most of the walls, and the floorboards of the homes had been removed and carted off, needed somewhere else. The homes had been pillaged of all reusable material and were awaiting their final eradication. But until then they stand, naked and raped, awaiting voyeurs and mourners alike.

One of the first things I noticed was a bed, three floors up, set upon the rafters, the floorboards pried from the frame of the house and shipped somewhere far away. I stood on the concrete rubble, the baby shoes, the cracked bricks and the porcelain shards, and I looked up. I imagined the workers, armed with the prong of a hammer, peeling back the floor one strip at a time and then pushing the old bed out onto the rafters before continuing to cart away the rest of the floor, and, part by part, every usable piece of the house. Around me on the ground floor there was an old bathroom, empty but for an old, cracked toilet. A kitchen with only a basin and rudimentary cabinets built into the walls.

This is the strangeness of the world I am now living in. Around every corner I stumble blindly into a world that baffles me. It is beautiful and strange and terrifying.

On my apartment door there is a red and gold spangled rabbit left by the family that moved out in the weeks before I arrived. It is the year of the rabbit. I am reminded of a letter that an old friend sent me once, which was sad, or at least seemed so then, though now it seems to ring out with something else, something more. It concluded: I cannot be bothered to care about something that does not produce a feeling in me. All I want is a pair of slippers with bunny faces on them so I will never be alone.

When we met, that cold December day when you came to see about renting my apartment and we talked for an hour, and then later, when you came back for dinner and we talked more, I wondered. I wondered if there could be moments, quiet ones, that would make me feel like I was dreaming.