The View

Flash fiction from Shanghai by Josh Stenberg


Jason called out of the blue. He was staying at a fancy hotel in Pudong; I should come over. The view was amazing, he said. Had I ever been? So, come.

I was startled and almost stumbled in the street. I agreed instinctively, out of confusion. Once I put down the phone, a prick of self-loathing. I wasn’t going anywhere special, so I bought a pair of new shoes in self-parody. Leather is also a kind of substance abuse.

Despite the shoes, the day was suddenly empty and smelled perilous. There was too much time before I was to go meet him and I knew that at home I would only mull and stew. So I just kept walking. The streets were cradled in that brief spring when the temperature is still comfortable but the threat of summer has already made the rounds. Things begin to sweat, especially things like us, who don’t belong, who prickle and rash. The climate is trying to excrete us.

This thought proved I hadn’t slept enough, so I repressed the desire for a cigarette and groped about in my mind for some duty or escape. I followed a sign, as if it held some kind of authority, like it might fulfil a perverse need to foil expectation. I turned into the Sun Yatsen residence.

It was a shady courtyard, with the usual garrulous security guards and a dejected woman in the ticket box. Everything had the appearance of normality even though Jason was in Shanghai and had summoned me. Inside there were so many pictures of Sun Yatsen and Soong Meiling, and even one of George Bernard Shaw – all this even though Jason had called me and was in Shanghai. Evidently the world had existed for eternities, holding railway revolutions and studying medicine in Hawaii and failing to unify a country, all without reference to Jason and me.

I finally broke down in front of a bookcase in Sun Yatsen’s study. Each volume of the classical history was a different size, and they fit into the case like a puzzle. I tried to convey something of this mystery to an Australian girl in shorts who asked me if I was all right.

“To think all the time great men spend doing stupid things,” I said, sniffling.

I went into the gift shop and only then understood why I had come; why, it was now clear, I had been sent here. Jason would ask what I had done with my day, and the answer would have to be respectable, passable. Now I had gone to the Sun Yatsen residence. I would say it and it would even be true. I marvelled at my unconscious foresight. I even bought a book about the revolution, to remind Jason of his insufficiencies and vanities, his smallness.

When I came out it was raining, and I took off my new shoes. I went back home and put newspaper in the shoes and thought of how little I should be thinking about Jason, until it was time to go meet him, by which time he seemed very distant indeed.


He wasn’t in the lobby. I phoned from downstairs, but he made me go right up to his room in the elevator, like a whore. I should have dressed more modestly. There was an elevator girl, a profession I didn’t think existed anymore. Her badge said her name was Maroon. Standing at the back of the mirror, I watched her eyes in the dull reflection of the elevator metal for seventeen floors, judging her back in revenge for my assumption that she was judging me. I reached Jason’s floor and his door and there was a hug, of course, and also a pat. Ambiguities exchanged.

Luxury is never as luxurious as you think. He’s a big deal, it seems, but the room was puny. Shanghai is so dense that even rich people are squeezed; small are my revenges. I murmured something about it being less than spacious. He laughed. He poured us tea, tacky tea, from bags.

At least he showed me to the window, not to the bed. “It’s the best view in Shanghai,” he said, “You’ve never seen Shanghai like this.” It was true enough; we were high up. Shanghai did its pulsing and weaving and clogging, like the heart of an extravagantly fat man.

“You can’t even see the people from here. Just lights and darkness.”

“But isn’t it incredible?”

“I bought you a book.” I said, clapping it on the teak. “A hundred years ago this was still the Qing Dynasty. Can you imagine? Shanghai was nothing, or close to nothing.” I put my hand on his knee.

He said, “You’re not even looking at the view. It’s like it’s not even there. Look at where we are.”

“It’s still the city. You’re here.” I swallowed, then dared, “You can’t make love to a city.”

“From what I hear, you’ve been trying.”

Instead of throwing the tea in his face, I smiled, as if it was a funny joke. “Are we going somewhere from here?” I asked.

He looked at his cell phone and it turned out he had plans. He had forgotten. He had just wanted me to see the view; the best view in Shanghai. It had been good to see me. He would not have forgiven himself if he had let me miss the best view in Shanghai.


Josh Stenberg is an Asia-based writer whose work has appeared in various journals and anthologies. He has translated two volumes of Su Tong’s fiction and edited Irina’s Hat: New Short Stories from China