Su-Jersey

A man between two worlds – new fiction by George Gao

 

ILLUSTRATION BY LIZ MOSER

Jackson and his grandmother sat at the teahouse on the city wall overlooking the river moat. An old peddler bundled in a wool jacket walked by with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He had a bamboo stick slung across his shoulders. There was a basket on each side, both filled with candy. “Ma Ya Tang,” he said, smirking at the two of them. “Five kuai each.”

Grandma Li waved the man away. She turned to Jackson and said, “When your mother was little, she used to love that stuff. But they were terrible for her teeth.”

“Yea?” said Jackson. He refilled his teacup and took a sip. He liked hearing about his mother’s childhood in Suzhou. Jackson was born in this city, though he left for the U.S. at age five. He often wondered what his life would be like if he had grown up here, instead of in the small suburb of Winslow, New Jersey.

Jackson had asked for a week off from work in order to go to China. It wasn’t a long time, barely enough to adjust to jetlag. Neither Jackson nor his father had visited in five years, since his mother passed away from breast cancer. Jackson knew he had to visit eventually, but he had been avoiding the trip. He also had no intention to return to China after this trip was over, at least not for another five years.

Grandma Li said, “What are your plans tonight? I wish you’d stay longer.”

Jackson said, “I’m not sure.”

Jackson looked out over the river. An old lady was shuttling a canoe for a family of American tourists. Underneath the willow trees, a group of children tossed pieces of bread towards the ducks. The Ma Ya Tang peddler had made his way down the winding steps and was now a crossing a stone bridge, heading toward a small alley tucked underneath corrugated rooftops. Further back in the horizon were the new districts of Suzhou, where a frenzy of skyscrapers rose from the flatlands.

It was a rare sunny morning with little pollution—though gray clouds loomed in the horizon. The air was crisp, and Jackson could see his breath very clearly.

“You know, Wanru still lives next door,” said Grandma Li.

“She does?” said Jackson. He spilled some tea on his coat and quickly wiped it off with his hand.

“She just graduated from college,” Grandma Li went on. “She’s working as a journalist now. She’s already on television. She looks like her mother, she’s very pretty.”

Jackson averted his eyes. “OK, I guess I’ll see if she’s around.”

Jackson took out his phone and pulled up Wanru’s WeChat profile. The photo showed her standing alone on an empty shoreline, maybe at Qinghai Lake. The sun was setting, the sky was orange and purple, and the moon was emerging behind a single cloud. Wanru wore a white summer dress that fluttered in the wind. Her hair was cropped short, shorter than Jackson had ever seen. Jackson wondered who had taken the photograph. 

I’m in Suzhou, he wrote in Chinese. Are you here? He saw that she was immediately typing a response. A second later, he got a reply.

“Of course I am here!!!” she wrote back in English. Her English was probably much better than his Chinese now, but it had not always been like that. “You didn’t tell me!” she wrote, finishing her message with a slew of emojis.

Grandma Li saw that Jackson was preoccupied. She picked up her cane, lifted herself off the chair and limped toward the stairs. She was shorter and more fragile than the last time Jackson saw her, which was at his mother’s funeral in New Jersey. He remembered her standing there with her eyes closed as the casket was lowered. She wasn’t crying, just silently praying.

Jackson turned back to his phone and wrote, “Dinner tonight?” Then he tossed his phone onto the table and lit a cigarette. Five years was the longest period of time that he and Wanru had gone without seeing each other. Jackson wondered how much she’d changed.

***

Jackson and Wanru had dated in 2012, when they were eighteen years old—with money to spend, time to kill, and no responsibilities. That summer, they traveled to every corner of the burgeoning city together, visiting the malls, the monuments, and the sprawling markets that seemed to emerge overnight. They had also fooled around together, exploring each other’s body with similar enthusiasm.

Jackson hadn’t thought much about those days until now, walking down the steps to Shiquan Street, near the city university, where he and Wanru used to frequent. Five years ago, Shiquan Street was where most of the expats hung out. These days, it just blended in with the surrounding neighborhoods—small, gray, decaying shops stacked beside one another.

Most of the Shiquan Street bars had shuttered their doors and moved outside the old city borders, to the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP)—which contained glitzy, well-planned downtown neighborhoods, built with capital investment from the Singaporean government. Growing up, Jackson had never seen any place like SIP—with its perfectly spaced tree-lined streets, followed by residential high-rises and sleek office towers, repeated endlessly. There was nothing comparable in the U.S. But in China, more and more second- and third-tier cities were beginning to look like that.

Much of Jackson and Wanru’s explorations took place in SIP. That was where he saw her last. They had ridden the Ferris Wheel at Times Square together, which gave them a birds-eye view of SIP’s frenetic construction. It didn’t occur to Jackson then that he wouldn’t be back in China for so long.

Jackson turned into a small alleyway off Shiquan Street, a shortcut along the creek that he had known about since childhood. On the corner, a pair of old men were playing chess, with a larger crowd gathered around them. Vendors approached Jackson in their native dialect, hawking their wares. Deliverymen on scooters picked up lunch orders from old ladies at food stands and deftly weaved between pedestrians on their way to Renmin Road.

SIP was nice, but Jackson was still accustomed to the old city. Sometimes he would imagine what it was like here during the Cultural Revolution, when these same alleys and shacks were covered with big red letters protesting western imperialism; or when people, like his grandma, had to line up for food rations. In New Jersey, districts were segregated by race. In Suzhou, they were segregated by time. 

Jackson felt his phone vibrate. It startled him, and he nearly dropped it on the ground. He stopped walking to read Wanru’s message, setting a time and place to meet later. A number of people bumped into him. A few yelled at him to move. Others gave him dirty looks, adding snide comments. Jackson looked up from his phone and felt dazed. Perhaps it was the jetlag hitting him. He suddenly felt like an imposter. He felt like a wrench in the machinery that was Suzhou daily life. For a moment, while he was reading Wanru’s familiar words, he had completely lost track of where he was and what he was doing there. 

***

Jackson arrived at the bus stop a few minutes ahead of schedule. It had started pouring. There was a small crowd of people gathered under the awning. Jackson stood beside them under an umbrella that he just bought at the convenient store across the street. He took off his left glove, fumbled through his jacket pocket, and pulled out a cigarette. He was about to light it when it occurred to him that Wanru didn’t know he smoked. He had started smoking around the time he met Carla, his other ex-girlfriend, which was very shortly after he broke up with Wanru. The bus pulled up to the station, and Jackson quickly tossed the cigarette in the gutter. 

Wanru wore a maroon sweater, a navy-blue skirt, and beige heels, all underneath a burgundy overcoat. She wore a silver charm around her neck with matching silver earrings. Jackson, by contrast, wore jeans with a grey sweater and a black overcoat.

“Wow, you look great,” said Jackson.

“Sorry I’m overdressed, I just got off work,” said Wanru. Jackson leaned in and kissed her on both cheeks. “What are you doing? We don’t do that here,” she said, blushing and laughing.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” said Jackson.

She stepped underneath Jackson’s umbrella and clutched his arm. They walked slowly toward the pulsing music and flashing lights of Guanqian Street, a historic shopping district. Pedestrians rushed around them like river water streaming past rocks. They finally arrived at a small restaurant hidden behind the People’s Mall that was known for its sheng jianbao, a type of pan-fried dumpling.

They each ordered dumplings and red-bean porridge with beer. They sat at a stone table on stone seats near the doorway. The storm was coming down harder now. The rainfall pattered heavily in the background. Thunder boomed in the distance. All the neon lights blurred outside the window.

“Damn, I think we’re stuck here,” said Jackson.

“I hope they don’t run out of dumplings,” said Wanru.

“I hope they don’t run out of beer,” said Jackson. “Want another round?”

“I can’t drink that much tonight. I have to work tomorrow,” said Wanru.

The dumplings were as delicious as Jackson recalled. The dough was crispy on the outside and moist underneath. Steam rose from the soup in the dough. “I missed this stuff so much,” he said. “Best sheng jianbao in the world.”

“I remember when your mom took us here when we were kids,” Wanru suddenly blurted out.

“Yea,” said Jackson, chewing his food, nodding, and looking down at the table. “I remember, too.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Wanru. “I know she passed away a long time ago, but I never got to talk to you about it.”

“It’s OK,” said Jackson, dropping his chopsticks on the floor. He was exhausted. He had barely slept all week. He wasn’t expecting Wanru to bring up this topic.

“We held a memorial for her at your grandma’s house. I was thinking about you the whole time,” said Wanru.

“Thanks, I appreciate that,” said Jackson. He lowered his head and massaged his eyes. A headache came and went. 

Wanru said, “Why did it take you so long to come back?”

“I don’t know,” said Jackson. “Can we talk about something else?”

Jackson looked into Wanru’s eyes and then looked away. He pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and took a deep drag. He leaned back against the chair and started drumming his fingers against the table. Wanru reached across and held Jackson’s hand in hers. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“Thanks,” said Jackson.

“Hey, remember this?” she said, showing him a pearl bracelet around her left wrist. She slipped it off and handed it to him. “They’re the Suzhou freshwater pearls you got me for my birthday, the day we went on the Ferris Wheel at Times Square. I got a jeweler to string them together after you left. Not bad, right?”

“They look good,” said Jackson. The pearls glimmered under the fluorescent light. He recalled that afternoon. The pearls came from live oysters fished out of Lake Tai. Jackson had purchased the oysters from a lady at the souvenir market, who had shucked them in front of him and Wanru. Inside the shell was a nest of raw pearls, wet and gleaming. The lady pulled them out of the pink flesh, dried them, and handed them to Wanru in a small plastic packet. He wondered if Wanru wore the pearls regularly, or whether she just wore them this evening because he was in town.

“I wear these every time I go on air,” said Wanru, as if reading his mind.

Jackson blinked, and suddenly, everything looked different. Something clicked inside of him. The rain still poured, the neon lights still shimmered, and the sky was still overcast—but it felt as if the city transformed in that instant. It once again became his mother’s city. Jackson felt tears forming in his eyes, felt the empty feeling return to him.

Jackson put out his cigarette, asked for the check, and paid for the meal. Wanru stood up and gathered her belongings. Jackson picked up her scarf, which had fallen onto the floor, and handed it to her. “Hey, do you remember the old opera house in the alley around the corner?” he said. “I heard they converted it into a bar. Want to check it out?”  

“Sure,” said Wanru.

Jackson unfurled his umbrella and stepped outside. Wanru stepped out after him. A bone-chilling gust of wind passed through them. Wanru let Jackson put his arm around her. She was still a few inches shorter than him, but her appearance changed in other ways. College and work had sharpened her features. She no longer caked her face with makeup like before. She was much more confidant, and her natural beauty now shone through.

They walked down the street and turned into an alley. “Hold on,” said Wanru. She dug through her purse for her phone and put it in her pocket.

Jackson stepped in front of her and looked into her eyes. He wanted to kiss her the way they had kissed so many times before, so many years ago. He leaned in, but she turned away.

“Jackson, I have a boyfriend,” said Wanru. “Let’s go before the storm gets worse.”

“Okay, I was wondering,” said Jackson.

They walked quietly side by side for a few minutes. Finally, they reached the old opera house. There was a row of red lanterns that swayed in the rain. It was silent there, too, except for the wind brushing against their ears, like ghosts whispering secrets.

A lady dressed in Qing-era clothing greeted them by the door. “Welcome to the Qianlong Hotel and Bar. Would you like a private room?” she said.

“Sure, we’ll take a private room,” said Jackson, smirking playfully at Wanru.

“We’ll just sit at the bar,” Wanru told the woman.

They snaked through another series of hallways and emerged into a small, smoke-filled space—perhaps what once was a living room. It looked mostly to be government officials with their girlfriends. The officials were playing cards and eating melon seeds. Each had his own vial of liquor.

“What is this place?” said Jackson.

“Well, it looks like a CCP watering hole,” said Wanru.

“Nice,” said Jackson.

“I don’t think they’re Suzhou officials, though. I think they’re a visiting delegation, probably from Subei,” said Wanru. “You can ask.”

“No, that’s alright,” said Jackson.

There was no music in the room, just the sound of the officials’ loud chatter. Jackson and Wanru talked about each other’s careers and future plans. Then they talked about each other’s love life.

“I’ve only dated two people since you,” said Wanru.

“American or Chinese?” said Jackson.

“One of each,” said Wanru.

“I bet the American was ugly,” said Jackson. “Americans in China are all really ugly. But they are all really confident, because Chinese girls love foreigners. They all think they’re Brad Pitt, even if they look like Danny DeVito.”

“Who is Danny Devito?” said Wanru.

“Short, fat guy,” said Jackson. He pulled up a picture of Danny DeVito on his phone and showed it to Wanru.

She laughed. “No, my ex did not look like that,” she said. She rifled through some photos on WeChat. “Look, he and his new wife are in Switzerland for their honeymoon,” she said. “They’re staying at a castle on an island. Isn’t it beautiful? She must feel like a princess.”

“It’s OK,” said Jackson, finishing his drink. “You sound bitter.”

“No. It’s just that, I’ve never left this country, and here is this girl in a castle in Europe.”

Jackson said, “Screw Europe, I’ll take you to New Jersey one day. America’s Garden state … Want another drink?”

“OK, last one,” said Wanru.

It was 3am by the time they finished. The officials had mostly cleared out, except for a few who were still chatting in hushed tones in the far corner. The rain died down a bit, and both Wanru and Jackson acknowledged that it was time to go.

“What time is your flight tomorrow?” said Wanru.

“In the afternoon,” said Jackson. “But I have to catch the bus to Shanghai in the morning.”

The streets were empty. They got a cab and drove past the newly erected shopping centers on Renmin Road. They drove past the subway construction sites surrounded by cranes and bulldozers. They drove past Wanru’s old high school, which was also Jackson’s mother’s old high school, and which would have been Jackson’s school, too, if his family had stayed in this city. Finally, they arrived at their neighborhood.

“I guess I’ll see you later,” said Jackson. He held Wanru’s hands in his. He leaned in to kiss her, and she kissed him back. Tears swelled in Wanru’s eyes, and she turned away.

“What’s wrong?” said Jackson. He was drunk.  

She folded her arms. “Nothing. Nothing’s wrong,” she said, shaking her head and stumbling backward against the wall, as if something had hit her. “I’m just going to miss you.”

“I’ll be back soon,” he said.  

Wanru said, “I don’t believe you.” Then she said, “My boyfriend wants me to marry him. I think I’m going to. He’s a really good guy. You’d like him, too, if you ever have a chance to meet him.”

“Oh,” said Jackson. “I didn’t know that. I’m sorry.”

“Goodbye, Jackson,” said Wanru, gathering her composure. “Have a safe trip home.” She put her hand on his shoulder, turned, and disappeared into the rain.

Jackson stood there for a few moments before stumbling toward Grandma Li’s apartment. He opened the door and shivered. It felt colder indoors. There was no floor heating in Suzhou in the winter. Jackson had experienced winter here only once before, when he was eight, when he and his mother came to attend his grandfather’s funeral. He would forever associate winter in Suzhou with death. He fell onto the bed and burrowed himself underneath the covers.

***

Jackson arrived in Newark, New Jersey, the next day around dusk. He was exhausted. He always had trouble sleeping on planes. He spent the whole 15 hours zoned out, watching one action movie after the next. The customs line took forever to get through, and at a few points he thought he was going to pass out on his luggage. Finally, he made it past the checkpoint and out the door. The sun was setting outside.

Jackson dug into his bag for his car keys. Then he spent 15 minutes zigzagging through the lot looking for his car. When he found it, he opened the door and collapsed onto the back seat.

Jackson listened to the airplanes overhead descending over Newark Airport. He listened to the highway traffic on the Garden State Parkway. He listened to NJ Transit trains clanking across the nearby railroads, shoveling commuters into and out of New York City. Finally, he closed his eyes and fell asleep.

Jackson drifted into the clouds, up above the birds and the airplanes. He drifted out of the atmosphere and into the stars. He drifted from one star to the next, from one scene to another. He drifted vividly, as if everything he saw was splashed with watercolor. He saw images of his mother and his grandmother and Wanru. He saw them at the market, buying fruit, with straw baskets hanging from their arms. He saw them walking along the riverbanks, among skyscrapers. He saw entire moments, replayed. In his dreams, Jackson felt like a swimmer overcome by ocean currents. Eventually, Jackson realized he could drift no more—for he had gone to the places of his youth and back again. In his mind’s eye, he saw not only cities of bygone eras, but also cities of the future.

George Gao is a writer based in Washington, DC. His articles have been published by Foreign Policy Magazine, Guernica Magazine, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. He is working on his first novel, Indie Pop

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