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.
Gino came over. He hadn’t seen anything; only cut bad with the Tsing Tao bottle I had thrown from my balcony.
“How do you say that you did something but didn’t really mean to do that something? You know, that something just happened and it wasn’t your fault at all. What’s that word again? It sounds like bent.”
“That would be accident,” T.V. answered.
I hadn’t meant to bomb a bottle at Gino’s face. I was convinced it would fly over the alley and up to the window and across the room and into a neck and thru an artery. It hadn’t. Green glass sprayed the pavement below cracking the predawn silence.
“Jesus Christ! What the fuck are you doing?” Gino yelled up at me from the alley below.
“Trying to stop a rape,” I said.
“I’m coming up,” Gino said.
“It’s open,” I yelled down.
I hadn’t locked the door. I wasn’t afraid of anyone coming in through the door. Too obvious. But then again, maybe that was how they tricked you.
Gino started coming by a few times a week shortly after I stopped worrying about things like crossing lines and the future tense. He’d close his bar and then head over to my place where we acted as profound and American as we could: listened to Springsteen, smoked shitty pot, spoke above our heads. Someday, Gino hoped to buy a houseboat. I knew he never would. It took a certain kind of person to survive above the water and Gino was not the floating type. I never told him that.
Across the alley, her swollen cheek turned away from my stare while that fucker in the apartment continued to do exactly what he wanted. I kept watching because I didn’t know what else to do. He finished right before Gino got to my door. She didn’t move.
“I’m bleeding,” Gino said stepping out to the balcony all giddy and proud. A green shard sprouted from his cheek. He wore it like a merit badge.
“Will the wifey be pissed?” I said the word with as much weight as I could breathe into it, an extra syllable for emphasis, an added y for guilt. He was too juiced-up on pain and pride to respond.
Gino was Chinese married. Ed With The Bad Teeth told me that back when I thought things like that mattered. “What does that even mean? Chinese married?” I had asked. Ed W.T.B.T. wouldn’t answer. Just smiled wide with his shitty breath. That Ed, always smiling extra long because he knew I nicknamed him something so ridiculously mundane and he liked to rub it in. He wanted to make sure I was aware my English had gone to complete shit. He wanted to make sure all those other expat rats recognized it, too.
“Yes, Ed W.T.B.T., I get it. My English sucks,” I said.
“It wasn’t really that good to begin with,” he snickered. “You being American and all.”
Ed W.T.B.T. was British, with broad, fully chipped shoulders. He was also the first to tell me that the only women in China who smoked were the whores. I rolled my blue eyes, lit another smoke and told him to fuck off.
“Stop standing so tall, Lady Liberty. You’ll end up doing things you never thought you would here,” he said.
I sat on the balcony floor. Gino smiled down at me, blood on his teeth, looking taller than he really was. He was in no rush to clean his wound. He would drip it proud until I insisted.
“Sit down. Let me pluck that out for you,” I said. He did as he was told.
Some days, I’d had enough of Gino. Enough of being everything he didn’t have. Enough of him being nothing I would ever want. English and homesickness were all we had in common. If we had met in the US, we never would have hung out, never would have had even one single conversation. Neither one of us ever said that out loud. We both just knew it.
Some days, I needed all of him. I knew that, too. I wouldn’t exist without him. I’d disappear and no one would come searching. No one. So, I let Gino suck on every part of speech he could because his Chinese wife did not speak English and Gino did not speak Chinese.
I turned on the balcony light so I could see his wound. He smiled up at me.
“Will the wifey be pissed?” I asked again.
“That I’m hurt? Yeah, of course she will.”
I placed a hand on either side of the cut, a wall of glass erected between my white skinny fingers. “Hold still,” I said. In one pull, I yanked the entire shard out. He didn’t flinch. “Got it clean,” I said breathing into his ear. He smirked. Gino missed the bad breath of home and I knew it.
I used to be American married. I stopped because of that one time he grabbed my left arm and bruised my left wrist. He never touched my face. Never chopped me down. Never. Only breathed the whiskey fire into my nose and threatened.
Gino didn’t know I was divorced. Or, at least he pretended he didn’t know. I wanted him to think I was a badass, that I could handle any blow that came my way, that I was unaffected, undamaged, that I wasn’t an American cliché. My act was ridiculous. Gino never called me out on it, though. I have to give him that. He was an expert at allowing others to pretend, a true gentleman.
I grabbed a towel from the pink plastic clips holding my drying laundry eight floors above the pavement.
“Press this hard,” I said.
He did as he was told.
“Will she be jealous?” I asked him.
“Of you? Hell no! Every wife wants the mistress to be crazy.”
He waited for me to ask why. I didn’t. He answered anyway.
“So the husband will take it out on the mistress and not the wife.”
Gino lit a joint and puffed in hard. He had gotten too comfortable. Thought he was bigger than he really was, a common trait among short expats living long-term in southeastern China.
I spent my mornings after my nights with Gino dumping the remains of our parties in different cans scattered around Huizhou. I would lie when he asked where it all went.
“I smoked it.”
“All of it?”
“Told you not to leave me alone with it.”
This was all part of my badass charade. I was no badass. Paranoia mushroomed in my chest. I was scared of everything. Most days it hurt to breathe. Some days it spread all the way to my fingernails. When that happened, I would chew down to the tips, taking at least two extra layers of skin just to be safe.
“What is that word for a place that is so good it saves you? It ends in a y. At least, I think it does. You know, a good place. The kind of place that feels safe?” I asked T.V.
“Sanctuary,” T.V. said.
“Yes, that’s it. Sanctuary. Thank you.”
Gino passed the joint my way. I refused it.
“Who the hell are you talking to?” he asked.
“No one. Let’s smoke inside,” I said.
“Nobody’s watching you. Jesus Christ, calm down,” Gino said.
“How do you know? How do you know what nobody is doing?”
“Because you’re not important enough.”
“Fuck you, Gino. I am, too.”
“No, you’re really not.” He took another long puff.
“I could be.”
He didn’t respond.
Gino was right. I wasn’t. Why would they care about an American teaching English in a Chinese high school who, after having a few too many, sometimes ended up slurring shit about regimes and schemes over a pile of dumplings? And who were they anyway? They didn’t exist. Did they? Of course they didn’t. I needed to calm the hell down about the whole thing. Ed W.T.B.T.’s stories about people disappearing were just a bunch of bullshit stories. Why did I listen to that guy? His breath smelled like fish sauce, his words salty and rancid. Gino was right. I was not important.
But, then again, maybe that was how they tricked you, how they got you to let your guard down. Maybe Gino was in on it. Maybe he was setting me up.
Gino smiled all lopsided and innocent under the stoned glow of my balcony’s spotlight. We both stared across the alley. She still hadn’t moved. The lumberjack was walking back and forth between the two rooms like he was searching for someone else to chop. That fucker.
“Come on, move. Come on. You’re okay. Just move. Let me know you are still breathing. Just move,” I begged.
“What the hell are you going to do for her if she doesn’t?” Gino asked.
I didn’t answer.
Maybe she stayed still just to mess with me because she knew I deserved it, because she knew I was useless and not important. Or, maybe she didn’t move because she didn’t want to provoke. Or, maybe she just didn’t want to breathe. Maybe it hurt too much.
“Fuck you!” I yelled over the alley and up to the window and across the room and into a neck and thru an artery. Nobody felt it.
“Yell all you want, they only care about the people that whisper,” Gino said and then took his wound and his joint inside. I followed the cloud of smoke. He sat cross-legged on my purple futon. Neither one of us closed the curtains.
“Think this will scar?” He rubbed his cheek and searched my computer for the evening’s soundtrack. He was amped, like he had just been tattooed with Olympic gold.
“Probably,” I said,
“Nice. Hey, why’d you take off so early tonight?” he asked as he started Nebraska from the middle of the album.
Most nights, I’d wait until Gino closed the bar and would get a ride home on the back of his motorcycle, but earlier Ed W.T.B.T.’s teeth had started to grind and the rest of the expat gang started looking at me like they could have easily forgotten I was Western, even American, if I had wanted them to. So I got the hell out of that bar as soon as all of their best lines came out.
Are those tits real?
Dude, I want to bang the shit out of you. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been with a western girl.
Come on, you think too much.
Let me just try for a second, we can stop if you don’t like it.
Are you sure those are real?
Do you have any idea how picky I am about who I cheat on my wife with?
You should come over and watch a movie. I just got a 55-inch flat screen.
You should come over and watch a movie. I just got a 58-inch flat screen.
There is no way those are real.
Come on, just come over and watch.
“I’d had enough,” I said to Gino.
“I could use some more,” Gino said.
“Of China?” I asked.
I grabbed the half-empty bottle of Scotch off the top of my mini-fridge and poured us both an inch. I stood across from him, towering above.
“I can’t handle this anymore,” I said.
“No. This place.” I handed him his glass.
“Oh, you on one of those kicks again?”
“Kicks? Jesus Christ, Gino. A woman just got raped and I didn’t do a goddamn thing about it. I wouldn’t call that a kick.”
“What did you want to do, go knock on every door until we found a guy that hit his wife and then tell him not to? Seriously?
“He raped her.”
“It wasn’t a rape.”
“Yes, it was. You didn’t see it.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“You don’t know what I saw.”
“I know what you didn’t see.” Gino took a half-inch gulp and reached for his pack of smokes.
I walked back out on the balcony, smoked an entire cigarette alone and walked back in.
“She still hasn’t moved,” I reported as I stood in front of him.
“She will,” Gino said. He grabbed the back of my knees. “Come on. Sit down.”
I did as I was told, took a seat on the soft purple velvet. We smoked and I got as lost as I could in the initial buzz knowing it wouldn’t last long. Gino droned on about the rise and fall of the American guitar solo and I played along.
When he was done conversing, Gino said, “You want to fuck? That’s all it’s ever going to be.” That was the line he used the first night he came over. It had worked. He used it now as a type of inside joke, a way of telling me he’d had enough of my words and was ready to move on. Before I’d even answered, Gino stood up and took off his shirt. I followed his lead.
After, when he kissed my forehead, I told him I would not make him breakfast.
“Sure you will, but not now. Let’s sleep first.” He pulled me close like we were more than what we were and I let him.
Gino passed out, started to snore. I started hearing accusations.
“You didn’t stop it? How could you not stop a rape? You’re really fucked-up, you know that?”
I needed to be ready to defend myself. I needed to practice my excuses. At first, I wasn’t sure for whom and then I quickly realized they were for Ed W.T.B.T. and gang because those fuckers were the only group of friends I had.
“What else was I supposed to do about it, guys? Seriously, think about it. What? Was I supposed to knock? Excuse me, are you the shit bag raping his wife?”
They’d agree way too easily and then we’d pass the night taking shots of shitty booze and making up ridiculous knocking-on-the-door scenarios. Sick Fuckers. Ed W.T.B.T. would laugh louder than the rest as he spouted hypotheticals. “Oh, you’re just beating her because she deserved it. Oh, sorry. Oh, and she’s actually your mistress, not your wife. My bad. I didn’t mean to interrupt. Please continue.” Even during an imagined conversation, Ed W.T.B.T said the most fucked-up things.
Gino’s snoring grew louder. Was wifey happy for the night off from that noise? Had she slept or wept or swept? Was a clean home and breakfast waiting for him? He wouldn’t wake for hours. I should call and tell her to clear the morning table and make him lunch.
I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop trying on excuses. None of them fit.
I watched because I had missed 30 Rock; I needed something to watch. No, that is not true. Not true at all. That’s just me trying to be all badass and unaffected. I’m no Ed W.T.B.T. I’m not. I swear.
I watched because before her face fell down, she saw me.
I watched because she knew I was there.
I watched because I could not leave her alone.
I watched because without me, she would not exist.
I would never ask Ed W.T.B.T and gang what they would have done if I was the one who had needed saving. I was scared of their hypothetical answer. Even during an imagined conversation, I thought the most fucked-up things.
Gino was spread wide in my bed. I told him I was leaving to buy eggs. He didn’t answer.
Outside, the morning garbage burned. The sky, plump with dark, began to fill with an intrusive light. I could hear the clouds protesting, “Leave me alone, light! Just leave me the fuck alone!” It didn’t matter. The sun’s rays pierced the fluffy skin despite their pleas. Fuck the sun, always slipping its bright wherever it wanted, always smiling wide and sly exactly like Ed W.T.B.T. Maybe the clouds weren’t ready for the break of day. Maybe no one was. Ever think of that, you goddamn rays?
“Fuck you, sun!” I yelled. Nothing. Nobody yelled back. Nobody even looked at me. Maybe Gino was right. Maybe they only heard the whispers. “Fuck you, sun,” I whispered.
“What is that word for someone you can’t see no matter what they do?”
“Invisible,” T.V. said.
“Yes, invisible. Thank you.”
I walked to the market. I would make a Denver Omelet. When was the last time Gino had a Denver Omelet? Wifey only made him bao buns and soup for breakfast. Saliva pooled in my dry mouth at the thought of a real breakfast so I bought six eggs, an onion and a green pepper before I remembered there was nowhere in all of Huizhou to buy real cheese. God damn it! How were you supposed to make breakfast without real cheese?
I dumped the ingredients and the rest of our party two blocks passed the market. The cracked eggs would coat the rest of our high in goop. The onion would disguise the smell. I could breathe easier.
When I returned, Gino was not in my bed, not in the bathroom, not on the balcony. He’d disappeared without saying goodbye. I would not go look for him.
“What’s that word for tired? I think it is the same word for all of the dirt and fumes and smoke coming out of a tailpipe. It sounds a lot like lost.”
“Exhaust,” T.V. said.
“Yes, exhaust. That’s it. Does that mean tired, too?”
“No, it does not. That would be exhausted.”
“Exhausted, that’s right. Thank you.”
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. I told her to watch 30 Rock later. It might make her laugh. She told me this was not a real conversation and that the imagined could not laugh. I told her that wasn’t true and then she said that the imagined also could not argue.
“How about judge? Could the imagined judge?” I asked.
“Yes, of course,” she said.
After all the wet clothes were dangling, she sat on the black grates and fished out a pack of smokes from her apron. Together we puffed away in the quiet morning.
When she finished, and before she threw her cigarette butt eight floors down to the pavement, she threw a sharp stare hard and fast right at me. It flew out of her eyes, over the rails, across the alley and onto my balcony, searching for an artery to pierce. I touched my neck to see if I was bleeding.
“It was an accident,” she said. Then, she disappeared into the kitchen, her chin tilted up with satisfaction. She did not turn around. She did not say goodbye.
I closed my eyes and tried to draft a dream about buying a boat and floating home. On the way, I would discover one of those beautiful places to anchor, the kind of place that makes you feel safe, like a harbor for a ship.
“What’s that word again?” I asked T.V. “I think it starts with an s.”
T.V. didn’t answer.
“You know that word for a place that is so good it saves you?”
I looked down at the alley below. Green shards glimmered in the daylight like a garden of sharp jade. I strained my ears for a whisper. Nothing came.
“Come on, I know you know. Say something, please. Just move your lips and say something,” I begged.
I went inside, shut the curtains, locked the door and crashed hard into my bed.
I needed to sleep. I needed to sleep and I needed to breathe.
I wanted to say I knew something bad was about to happen, but I could not remember how.
Patrina Corsetti’s work has appeared in The Prompt, New Limestone Review, The Passed Note, The New Guard and is a permanent part of the Bud Werner Memorial Library’s story dispenser. Her short story collection was a finalist for the 2019 Hidden River Arts Eludia Award and her first novel,Stalking Barry Cider, was long listed for the 2020 Acheven Book Prize and for Yes Yes Books’ 2021 ORP Prize. Patrina holds a BA from Reed College and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs, CO and is currently shopping her second novel, Now the Enemy.