- Where Asian writers get unpeeled -
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By: Flair Donglai SHI
She entered and examined the whole store as if to attend some violent competition in a Roman arena. She finally rested her eyes upon me, as I was stiffly standing behind the counter as usual. The glinting of her eyes hinted at a disdainful tone exuding from her whole body, as if she had witnessed something as inharmonious as the feeling her action caused in me.
She had fixed her eyes upon me for what seemed like an hour, though it could only have been seconds. I wondered if I should break the silence and lead the encounter back to a routine shopping procedure by saying “Welcome!” as a salesman should always say, but I soon realized it was too normal, too conventional, too outdated to deal with this girl.
Her eyes were a deep kaleidoscope that stretched far beyond the reach of my vision—dynamic, but static sometimes; frantic, yet with the possibility of momentary tranquility; colorful, yet pale as those of the dead sometimes; absolute, but with relativity in every cell of her pupils. Such caprice.
I kept waiting. The clock on the wall behind my back continued ticking, and resonated in the air even loudly through the stillness. The fluorescent lights above the cartons of fast noodles, both ignoble at ordinary times, strobed for several seconds, as if suddenly they desired to be noticed.
Then the deadening silence was shattered.
As she spoke she stared at me more closely, and I took the chance to extend my analysis to all her facial realm. The peculiarity of her eyes had stretched and covered her face as an inseparable whole—a peculiarity that could be classified as pretty. But I could not tell the exact place where her beauty lay, and a sense of failure and disappointment, like some kind of creeping ivy, grew around me slowly. Meanwhile, she had spread her identity from her eyes till her whole body was soaked in it. So, I got it.
“Er…what kind of strawberry candy do you want?”
She then oddly jumped back to her silence again, staring at something that was on the cupboard behind me. “What of the cupboard?” I thought.
“I mean…Which brand do you prefer? We’ve got a lot.”
She did not move a single step, nor did she make a single noise; only her eyes began to move from right to left and then the way back as if counting something, which reminded me of my sulky days of arranging and counting things alone in the store every time there was a new load of grocery coming in. Tedium.
Suddenly her eyes stopped at nowhere, and her voice was released from the pale prison of her lips again, but slightly changed:
“The Pink”, the muscles beneath her facial skin moved, trying to make an expression. “Girls with pink lips, so pink that he feels like a big pink lollipop.”
“The Pink is the finest kind of strawberry candy we’ve got, as you can tell from its price, and I assure you that they won’t stain your lips ‘cause no man-made pigment is added.”
My hope that her first long sentence spoken would be the good chance to warm the atmosphere instead only led to another awkward pause. She seemed to have no mood for anything. I began to get confused, and I tried to re-simplify the situation: a girl came to my grocery to buy candies, and if she chose to do so by staring here and there, rather than by having a proper conversation with the salesman, then so be it.
Her eyes merely returned to the previous kaleidoscopic state. Hollowly colorful, or another way around—every pair of extremities seem to be coexisting in those two holes of hers. Two colorful holes, deep as a singularity. A hole you put your lollipop in. And out.
“The Pink also has its lollipop series, but I am not sure if we have the strawberry flavor here”, I walked out of the counter and walked towards the shelves where all the candies were, partly to avoid the awkwardness, “Why don’t you come here and check them out for yourself?”
She then followed my direction, turned around and walked toward the shelf in front of me. Would it be too weird if I say it was terrific to be paid attention by her this way? Or this could be a pun—terrific as good, when normalcy had finally been found in queerness; terrific as bad, when the focus that has always been on me was suddenly fixed upon some lifeless stuff.
I didn’t notice her sexiness, or rather, coquettishness till then. She started to walk to and fro in the narrow path between the two shelves, always facing the candy shelf with a look that was so enticing as if she was trying to seduce those candies, in the same way her black-mesh-stockinged long legs together with her kitten heels were seducing me. It was a cold night, which explained why she wore the thick down jacket to cover her body above the waist. This half part of her body I could not see but I bet it would provide much space for imagination—“Cup C or D?”—this question was so hard that I almost walked over to the bra shelf to check.
However, the down jacket was not the only thing that was out of harmony with the lower part of her body.Her face, which should have been cosmetically enhanced, was plain and pale. “She should at least powder over the freckles” I thought, and then the slogan of some whitening cream suddenly went into my brain—“6 high powered peptides, 4 antioxidants, and the most effective skin hydrators…”
After she had scrutinized all the candies on the shelf for a few times, she spoke to me while not facing me directly.
Whether I just held these two syllables in my mouth or actually murmured them out I cannot remember, but I do remember the loudest syllable the girl ever produced, after I tried to take “The Pink” strawberry candy off the shelf—
I was startled, as if a gun had been pulled out of her pocket and was pointing right in my face. I dared not speak.
“You see the brand name is The Pink, so why do they have their candies packed in so many cartons of different colors? If you say the color is to match the flavor of the candy, why not just have the strawberry ones?”
“I guess no candy producers can survive with only one flavor of candy.”
“Why can’t they?”
“You know…different people have different preferences…and a person may have several favorites…It’s always good to have more choices.” A pause hung awkwardly in the air.” “I myself love the banana and jackfruit ones,” I said, to fill the expanding silence.
“Oh I see, Rebecca and Lily.”
She began to touch every flavor of The Pink presented in the first row on the shelf, sometimes lifted them to have a close look as if trying to remember all the information on the cantons, except the strawberry one.
“No man-made pigment added, I can guarantee.”
“Would that exclusion do them any bad?”
“No. Quite the opposite. Man-made pigment would do no good to your health, but whether it is added or not would not affect the taste of the candies at all.”
“Huh. The taste.”
“Yes. The taste is the most important thing, isn’t it?”
“So do you have chili candies?”
“Chili candies? I have never heard of it. Wouldn’t that mixture of spicy and sweet be weird?”
“But you guys like spicy and sweet, don’t you? You can never say you don’t like a thing before you put it into your mouth.”
Another uncomfortable pause.
“Sweet and spicy, I mean” She now code-switched to English, “You do speak English, do you? Or you couldn’t sell a thing in this area.”
“Of course I do.” Her pronunciation was far better than mine, so I dared not say anything longer. “She speaks English like a foreigner to her countryman, why so pretentious?”, I thought. I began to disdain her, but my eyes, unlike hers, remained humble, my feelings suppressed.
“Then just give me the strawberry candy.” Back to the mother tongue.
“Finally it’s over” I thought. It was like her test on me had finally ended—she tested my logic, my patience, my language ability and the possible value of my existence altogether.
I took one carton off and headed towards the counter, and then I felt a cold soft friction on my bare neck. At that second I regretted that I hadn’t put my scarf on. But when I turned around and saw her smile for the first time, I felt lucky I hadn’t.
“Ten cartons” She murmured.
But I ignored her in my immersion of thinking: “Why my neck? Wouldn’t it be more normal to pat my shoulder or just hit my hand with a little push?” I raised both of my hands and felt stuck by the gloves I was wearing.
“Ten cartons, please.” She again stared at me, but quite boldly this time.
“Oh, okay” I fetched another nine from the drawer under the shelf.
“250 yuan, that is.”
“A night.” English out of a sudden again.
“Pardon me?” I insisted on Mandarin.
“Just gimme the candy.” Her Mandarin was carrying an English accent now, or so I detected.
“Here you are” I put the ten cartons on the counter, “do you need a bag?”
“A plastic bag?”
“Sorry, you know the plastic bag limit order, we are now using reusable cloth bags only, to prevent the environment from being polluted, you know.”
“But plastics can also keep pollution away.”
“Away from what?”
After I took the cloth bag out on the counter, she asked me to open it, and keep it open. I did what she asked me to do, without knowing that this would be another test of hers.
The test of masculinity, stamina.
She made me hold the bag open for at least ten minutes, during which my muscles began to grow “sour”, as we say in Chinese , in the same way a carton of expired candies can grow sour. In that duration she picked every carton up and tore them open and poured the candies into the bag, while I began to thank God she didn’t have to count them one by one.
I thought it was my imagination but her face seemed to be much paler than I was first acquainted with it. But instead of showing any corresponding weakness, her actions grew faster and faster, reminding me of the gangsters in the movies, who found the evil treasure and grasped them as if to devour them immediately.
When she picked up the last carton left to be torn open, she whisked my hands away. She then slung the bag on her arm, took a candy out, flung it into her mouth, and kept sucking, so eagerly. Before long, that dancing pace of hers escorted her out of the store, and this time the heels were making quite a continuous clicking melody resembling those of some swaggering drunken alcoholic. Though her clothes were stained with a light smell of alcohol and cigarettes, I knew she had not touched them herself as when she spoke to me, I could only smell the hunger and thirst for something, anything—an emptiness coming out of her pharynx , or somewhere else.
Maybe we define something as normal and natural when it becomes a habit. I sought no explanation when I realised I was still observing her after she left the store, as if she was the only object of observation remained in the world. Or at least, in my world.
When the green light she was waiting for beamed out from the traffic light, the clock on the wall happened to strike midnight. When she stepped on the white lines of the zebra crossing on that empty street, I fantasised that a crazed car would suddenly appear and hit her in the next second. I imagined how beautiful it would be to see the candies being released from the bag and flying into the sky and then dropping on her corpse like snowflakes, as though she could then also be free.
But she arrived at the other side, safely. The quiet was still quiet. I then expected her just to melt into the mist of the colorful neon lights on the other side of the street.
“Of course she did arrive there safely, otherwise I would feel guilty, wouldn’t I?” I thought. But when I pulled my keys out of my pocket and prepared to close the store, she was there.
She was lying there on the pavement.
I crammed the keys into my pocket and ran out of the store towards her. Now another test, to test whether I, as a sociable human being, have the ability to save a fellow-creature. But who was I to save her?
She was lying there, with crumbs of strawberry candy in her mouth and dozens of them spilled from the bag lying on the street. They all died fragrantly like flower petals that had been crushed by the wheels of a car.
I carried her on my shoulders and hurried back to the store. “Sara! Let me!” she called out in an abrupt break of voice and stripped herself off my back when I tried to push open the glass door of the store. She tried to run back across the street, but soon collapsed again to the ground. She was again lying, on the zebra stripes. The red light from the traffic light sprinkled upon her like threads of misty smoke. I hated the sudden burst of impolite English words but still I approached, and found her eyes wide open. I stretched my hands out trying to prop her up.
“No. Let me stay this way for a while” She spoke in such an exhausted way that every syllable was mixed up with the heavy breath in an acoustic blur.
I waited beside her. There were no vehicles of any kind coming, only some moving shadows wandering carelessly around the corners of the street.
“Nothing” she didn’t wait for me to finish the question, as if declaring that I had no power to question her life and she was the only one that could impose tests and questions on others, “They just need time”.
I was stuck in this vain effort to find an explanation, so I just used my usual coping strategy and switched to the simplified side of the world:
“Oh, the candies. Don’t worry, I’ll go and put them back in the bag for you. But before that, you should perhaps have a little rest in the store. I’ll carry you back there. Come.”
“Thank you.” English again, the foreignness made it so insincere.
When I propped her up on my shoulders and walked towards the store again, the red light turned green once more.
The moment I put her down on the bench in the store, I saw her cleavage. Another deep dark hole that we men want to dive into, a triangle of desire. The images of my first sex with a nameless girl walking by on this same street flashed across my memory—she straddled me, and put my hands on her breasts—I remembered her hair was of the same length as this girl on my shoulders, which was dangling in the air like thousands of swings.
The clock struck one. The traffic light stopped working as it turned yellow – it would remain in this comforting hue till next morning. “Oh, wait,but it is already the ‘next’ morning” I thought.
It was not that I didn’t want to say anything in this silence. As a matter of fact, I should have said something, but I did not. Not until I simplified all my confusing experiences and managed to contract them into one single reasonable question:
“Why did you eat so many strawberry candies?”
She slowly opened her eyes, and the kaleidoscope was not there anymore—they had all been transformed into energy to breathe. She apparently was in no mood for talking.
“Fine, fine. Just try to rest here. I’ll go and get your candies for you.”
“No!” All of a sudden she grabbed my wrist, and the clicking sounds of the silver bracelets on her wrist pervaded the whole store.
“They are my candies now. I bought them. They are all my possessions. I’ll get them later myself.”
This sentence was uttered with a degree of force that was startling from a sick person, and it stunned me. Having nothing else to do or say , I walked a few steps backward and seated myself on the bench beside her. I wiped my sweaty forehead with my apron.
“What do you rely on to keep living?”
“What do I rely on to keep living?”
“Honestly I don’t know if you ask me so suddenly. I was just born and brought into this world and so here I am, I have to live. And that’s it.”
“So you rely on what you don’t know to live.”
“And now I rely on strawberry candies to live” she looked at me and glimpsed upon the candy shelves for several times. Knowing what she meant, I rose from the bench and fetched another carton for her. I carefully tore it open, got one out on my palm and displayed it in front of her.
“Put it into my mouth.”
I did what she demanded. I felt as if she was kissing my palm when her lips climbed on it to suck in the candy. After the candy was gone my palm lost all its value, like an oyster deprived of its pearl. I heard the candy melt in her mouth, without being cracked or chewed.
“It’s like a sponge.”
“The strawberry candy.”
“Without it, I will be devoured by this flood.”
“The aching flood.”
I had nothing to say. That phrase was too poetic for Chinese, so I thought she must have translated it from English.
She moved her lips, almost uttered another syllable while a foreigner came in without noticing us as we huddled against the wall.
Her eyes now began to chase after the foreigner, almost with the same power she did on me at the very beginning. I chased after the foreigner with my eyes as well. I just fixed my eyes on him so motionlessly, like the state you are dragged in when you are extremely sleepy. I had totally forgotten my job and my identity as a salesman, sitting in the very store I was working. in.
This foreigner was tall, like an American cowboy, blond, like a Swedish prince, with a shaved face, like an English gentleman. He barged into the store in a hurried way, like an athletic Russian. He looked around aimlessly and suddenly turned around so we were caught.
And she smiled at him and got up.
“I should probably go now” she switched her code again, but to our urban dialect this time, obviously to exclude the foreigner.
She stepped forward and kissed the foreigner hello, and then goodbye on the cheeks. Then she walked out of the store back to the other side of the street.
I took the carton I just opened from the bench and headed toward the counter. When I put the candy down on the counter, the foreign man spoke in a booming voice, as if to show off the masculinity hidden in it. “Like some kind of Italian opera” I thought, and I could sense the lingering remnant of cigarette in his mouth, “Maybe more of a German gangster”.
“That. The Pink.” He gave a glance towards the cupboard on the wall behind me.
I wished the shiny pink box of the condom I put in his hairy Caucasian hand could remember my sweaty nervous Chinese fingers. I wished it could suck my sweat like the sponge that sucked her aching flood, like the condom that sucks a man’s essence.
After the foreigner left the store, I remained where I was, standing behind the counter. Then the clock struck two, reminding me that I had spent one eighth of my whole day, or rather, one sixteenth of my two days with her, for I could still see her picking up the candies there across the dizzy street.
She finished picking up candies and stood up when the blond man reached her. They kissed again, but now on the lips. I wondered how would this mix of strawberry and cigarette taste, and would it outweigh that one of spicy and sweet of the imagined chili candies.
After they finally disappeared into the kaleidoscopic mist of the deep hole of this district, I turned off the lights and locked the store. Before this I took a strawberry candy out of the carton.
Now while I am walking into the darkness, which is ruthlessly stretching towards the opposite direction against the foggy mirage of colorful worldliness, I put the candy into my mouth and begin to suck it. A passionate sour-sweetness flames on my tongue, and gradually occupies the whole oral cavity like a mighty army.
I keep sucking, and sucking.
That look of hers, I recall, was as if demanding something from me with that hollowness. Something neither the blond nor I could give her. Something that can be expressed by neither Mandarin nor English, but only felt in sucking.
While we are sucking the strawberry candy, the strawberry candy also sucks us. It keeps sucking and sucking, sucking the aching flood right from the bottom of our hearts, like a sponge.BW
My name is Flair Donglai SHI, I am an MA candidate studying Comparative Literature at University College London. I will start my MSt in World Literatures in English at Oxford in October.
My literary interests are in post-colonialism, transnationalism, cosmopolitanism and postmodern literatures. I write social comments for the University of Nottingham, Ningbo Campus and short stories and poems for the Still Point journal in London.
I can be contacted through Facebook: Flair Donglai SHI