A Bruise

by W.M. Butler

I can hear them through the walls, making love. They do not sound like us. They sound different, the noises they make are alien. They are not like us. I will listen to them while laying in bed, on my back, resting my head on folded arms. Sometimes when I hear them start, I will stand up and pace back and forth along my room, along the wall where I believe the sounds come from. I will find the point which is loudest, that magnifies their cries. I will place my hands flat on the concrete wall, I will press my naked chest to the wall, I will rest my ear to the wall. The wall is cold, I can sense the thickness of the concrete by touch alone. I do not know how sound carries through such a dense material but it is so, in Chinese buildings, sound carries in strange ways. I know that these people are foreign but I do not know where in the building they live. It could be five floors above me and on the opposite end of the building. Their sex carries through the hallways and stairwells of the building like a haunted sound,  the dead calling out to the living. I shiver when I think this way, I whisper little prayers to keep the dead where they live, so they do not visit me.I have never seen the foreigners though I have been living in Meihua Yuan for five years and they have been here for two. I do not see them in the elevators, or in the mailroom. I never see them coming or going in the neighbourhood. Our building complex is big and there are many people, this is not unusual. If I wanted I need only ask my Baoan which floor and which room is theirs but I am content to wonder about them, this way I can decide what they look like and who they are.

Today I heard them fight, I did not understand the words but I understood the anger. Anger is easy to know. Breaking dishes, slamming doors and chairs scrapped hard across the floors. She is crying loudly, she is very loud. He is quite and I only hear the rough endings of his words but nothing complete. The woman becomes too loud, out of control. There is a roar from him and a great silence that follows for the rest of the night. The only sounds now are tiny foot steps soft and meek or the rushing hiss of the hot water heater. There is a tension in the air, it is thick, heavy. It is almost enough to choke on.

When the fighting stopped I noticed a slight buzzing that whispered in my ear and has been following me ever since. At first I think it is only the excitement of the other’s argument but soon I know what it is. It is a voice. It is curious. Now I am curious. It wants to know them, it wants to know what happened, it wonders if the man’s roar ended the fighting or if the man’s hand. It wants to see what a bruise looks like on a foreign woman’s eye, and now so do I.

Today I ask the Bao’an about the foreigners. He tells me he knows they are in room 1101, something he knows because the Americans are rich and have many things delivered to their home. I know two things that I did not know before. This is a start. I ask the Baoan when they come home, he tells me they leave together most days at 7:00 but return separately between 19:00 and 20:00.

Now I know three things.

I sit in my chair, I am angry because now I know things that cannot be changed. Before there was only what I thought, now there is what is real. This is difficult for me, but once I have started to know things I cannot stop. I begin to visit the eleventh floor at the times they come home in the evenings. The first night they do not come. I wait until 23:00 but there are no foreigners. Too make sure I place my ear to their door but could hear no movement inside. I stand looking at the number on the door for some time wondering where they could be. I think they are at a rich place on the bund. They must be laughing with their friends and drinking strange alcohol from other places. There is nothing for me tonight, I go home and wait.

I go back again the next night to see if I can find them. I wait this time for only twenty minutes, then I see her. She is alone and walking towards me, I am nervous and look down as she passes, I am standing there looking stupid, she stops and turns towards me. I am staid she knows I am waiting for her, I dig into my pocket and pull out my keys and attempt to open the nearest door then struggled with opening the lock.

Oh, I said, looking up at the number. I have the wrong floor!

I smile nervously, she can not understand what I say but I can see she has put it together. I apologize to her and walk towards the elevator. I press the 9th floor button. The woman does not speak or understand Chinese. Now I know something else, before I get off the elevator I feed this new thing to the voice in my ear, it drones louder and seems content.

While I finish my work I think about the woman and how she did not have a bruise on her eye, this has disappointed me but I do not know why. I must know more. I must see the man. I ask around the building and learn from other residents on the eleventh floor that the man has left. After the big fight the woman is alone. It is not what I wanted but this I cannot change. I must change how I think, I begin watching her more closely from a distance when she goes out of the apartment, as she goes to the. LianHua on the corner for her produce. Sometimes I will smile at her while we pass each other in an isle or on the street. She will smile back. She knows me a little now, she is used to seeing me. This is how it works. Once you see someone for the first time, You began seeing them more often. This is not unusual. This is Shanghai and we are neighbours.

The woman is pretty and small. Dark hair and blue eyes. She is well dressed. She puts great care into her appearance but she is modest. This is correct behaviour for a woman. When she recognizes me on the street she is polite and will greet me in what little Chinese she knows.


Uh, Nihao, Nihao.

I say with polite enthusiasm, smiling so she can see how happy I am.  I ask her little questions, I ask her if she has eaten yet, she does not understand but giggles and nods trying to understand what she can. I laugh

Ni ting bo dong. I tell her. Miming speech and looking confused then finally pointing to her.

Yes, yes! She says, then I assume whatever “I don’t understand.” is in English.

We have connected, we have made a connection, this cannot be taken back, cannot be changed. The buzzing in my ear is now a cat’s sound. I let my mind stroke it and it is pleased.

Today I see her again, I make more small talk with her, I tell her she must be strong to go out on a day like this with out a coat. She cannot get my words and again I mime for her, She understands and we move on. I am pleased we know each other better. The woman is the first foreigner I have known. Later that day I see her again and attempt to exchange names with her but she is upset, distracted but I am too excited to take much notice. As I try, as I say her name, she is looking past me, does not hear me. I boldly reach out and take her hand, suddenly she is aware of me. She looks frightened and pulls away. I am embarrassed and can do nothing but watch as she walks away from me. I watch her go towards a foreign man on the corner.

Three days and I have not left my apartment. The buzzing voice in my ear is angry at me, at her.

It is 17:00 and I wait on the eleventh floor for the locksmith. I need only wait a short time, he comes and opens the door for me. I pay him his money and he leaves. I walk through the apartment, looking but not touching. I look in the fridge, I click the living room light on then off, then on then off again. I sit down on a chair and wait for her to come home. The apartment is quiet but inside me there is a great roar where the buzzing used to be. Today I will see what a bruise looks like on a foreign woman.


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