“We were all being watched. At least that’s what we thought.” Today in New Voices, we are excited to share “Used Scars” by Patrina Corsetti! In this story, a paranoid expat in China witnesses what she believes to be a violent assault in the apartment across the alley. But the reality of what she saw is questioned by her companion and she must fight through delusions to understand what she saw, understand, in the end, her own inaction. Corsetti’s clipped prose propels us into the bleakest alleys, never slowing down to let us catch our breath. Hang on and read below.
Out on the balcony, I sat on the ground next to a splatter of Gino’s dried blood. Across the alley, a rat climbed in a window and my girl crawled out a different one. She didn’t have a fancy expat balcony like me. She had to use a window to get to her laundry. She took her time clipping the wet clothes. She knew I was watching her. She knew I could see her right eye swelled shut. We chatted about the weather: hazy, polluted with a chance of smog. No rain. Nothing to clean the air was on the horizon.
We were all being watched. At least that’s what we thought.
Sometimes, we even imagined the watching into existence so that we had an excuse for our paranoia, which was very real.
“Don’t let them think you don’t want to be watched,” Ed With The Bad Teeth had said.
Tomorrow when I can stand straighter, I will remove those thick curtains strung across the balcony’s sliding glass door. Then they will know I have nothing to hide.
I’d been home from Huizhou’s only foreign-owned bar for about an hour, soaked with enough whiskey for one night and part of one morning. First, I arranged my one-room apartment to look unarranged because Gino would be coming over and I wanted to come across as nonchalant. Gino was a full-blown expat and the only other American I knew living in the city. I had a teaching contract that expired at the end of the summer and then I’d be gone, hopefully earlier if I could sneak away while no one was looking. Once my room had just the right amount of indifference, I watched Huizhou, China twinkle from the balcony and I waited. Gino hadn’t told me he would stop by; I just knew. I’d been seeing things for a while and hearing voices for even longer, some real, some imagined, some both. I was afraid to know the difference.
Before I’d left the bar, one of those expat scumbags had slipped me a dumpling. Those rat fuckers loved to slip things. They knew I was off the dumplings. They knew the stuffing made me paranoid. There was no telling what I had unknowingly digested and now I wouldn’t sleep. I’d just missed zoning out to 30 Rock, the only program aired in English each night so I lit a cigarette. There was nothing else I could do except to breathe in and to breathe out and to wait.
It was humid. Garbage was burning. Air particles hummed. Everybody smoking cigarettes or strung out on the night and afraid to sleep was watching. I wanted to say I knew something bad was about to happen, but I couldn’t remember how.
“I believe the word you are looking for is premonition,” Teacher Voice said.
“Premonition?” I asked.
“Yes, premonition. It means to have a strong feeling that something unpleasant is about to happen,” Teacher Voice said.
“Premonition. Yes, that’s it. Thank you.”
I’d only been living in China for half a year but had already lost the ability to remember hundreds of common words on the spot. I started hearing Teacher Voice a few months back. She rescued as many of those unstable words gathering on the slick edge of my memory as she could. She’d talk them down from the ledge, wrap a blanket around their shaking shoulders, safely bring them back to my vocabulary. We both knew that eventually she would no longer be able to reason with them. Soon they would insist on jumping and be gone forever. This was not paranoia. It was bound to happen.
“The word you are looking for is inevitable,” Teacher Voice said.
“Oh, yeah. Inevitable,” I said.
“Yes, inevitable. It means unavoidable,” T.V. said.
“That does sound right. Thank you.”
I puffed away, watching the countless uncovered windows glow above the streets of Huizhou. Then, watching only one uncovered window because it was impossible not to.
Before I saw her face go down in the window across from my balcony, I sparked my lighter for a second smoke. Then her body fell. Not a slow, graceful fall. Not a timber of a fall. She got chopped hard and fast, hair and limbs and bark crashing to the couch. After her face went down, I smoked one and half cigarettes. I smoked one and half cigarettes and picked at the zit collection sprouting heads on my chin before I did one goddam single thing to try to stop it.