We got back to Dylan’s flat around 8am, exhausted but bemused. He lived above the 37th floor – cannot recall precisely which – in a spacious abode of white vaulted ceilings, black leather couches and gingko-etched amenities: a markedly modern enclave. He shared a two-story flat with three other shomrads – gentlemen of varying provenance and pedigree who’d gone camping for the weekend. Rush and I each had entirely real mattresses all to ourselves: a boon to say the least. We dozed ‘til early afternoon, slumberous paupers in the sky.
We awoke several hours later with curiously unmerited energy – the kind that only comes in periods of fear or infatuation. Dylan’s two-story apartment had only four balconies – each a separate window onto a terrifyingly expansive world. Below, an endless armory of concrete and cast iron thrust their nave into the sunless heavens; only with great discretion can you spot the now ancient, ground level arteries that predate the Third Industrial Revolution.
We have a coffee on the terrace before heading down for lunch. Almost instantly, the elevator dispatches us into an empty lobby, the only sign of life a placard for panacean-powdered milk (depicting the Olympian feats of Chinese infancy). In the parking lot, a string of hatchbacks, mainly Audis, line the entrance. Outside the compound, a series of decrepit, abandoned bicycles besprinkle the sidewalk. We make for the place on the corner.
It’s a National Holiday and Dylan’s girlfriend comes along for the meal. Slender but striking, blasé and unabashedly Shanghainese, at first glance she’s mildly unforthcoming. That said, once you’ve gotten over the lethal regard and beguiling, cigarette-beholden rouge, she’s quite the open book – nay, wonderfully and devastatingly frank. Before long we’ve chanced upon the Chinese Civil War. Somewhat tactlessly, I inquire about her family’s involvement. “Granddad start with the Nationalists but become Communist halfway through the war,” she begins. “A great fighter, he kill many, many enemy.” An illiterate peasant from the South, he was rewarded by the nascent government with a handsome salaried position and a Shanghainese wife: the equivalent to Depression-era Dustbowlers returning from the Battle of the Bulge to find they’ve a girl from Park Avenue and a gig at HUD awaiting them in Westchester. I suppose chaos and modernization have their perks.
She seems happy to answer our questions, so press ahead I must. How did your grandfather come to join the Communists? “If you must know, China have two classes and he from most glorious class: he is worker – most glorious class in China.” To mitigate my furious delight, I bite deeply into my tongue. A trickle of blood? Not quite. I hold my breath, pinch my stomach and glance out the window, desperate for some modicum of distraction. Alas, I’ve got nothing. To suppress a violent eruption of joy, I press ahead. “Are you a member of the Communist Party?” “No, but I madly want to be. I try some time – they don’t let me,” she coyly notes, taking another elusive drag of her Double Happiness, the closest thing China has to cowboy killers. I cannot tell if she is being serious or not. “Many friends in Party – many, many,” she continues. “But also many hard to enter. They only want certain type of person.”
We settle our bill and make for the door. It’s mid-afternoon and the spacious establishment has completely emptied out. The lights have been shut off and an elderly woman dozes off to the side, momentary respite from a slavish routine. Atop the counter are two enormous jars, each containing a tawny, viscid liquid absorbing the essence of unidentifiable objects. They are regional liquors, I am told, kept on display by the door for customers on the go; each had a plastic tap. Only closer inspection would reveal the objects in which our sap fermented. The first contained a motley of pint-sized leggy sea monsters, frozen in time and substance. The second, it shall be noted, a giant reindeer penis. We hasten for the door.
Outside, I ask Dylan’s girl if the restaurateurs were from Shanghai (evidence suggests they were not). “They are from ______, some places northwest of Beijing,” she says with subtle condescension. “Oh, they are from Manchuria?” I foolishly inquire. “What is Manchuria?” she scoffs, “there is no Manchuria.” “What do you mean no Manchuria,” I protest, “I reference it all the time.” “No such thing as Manchuria,” she reiterates, “Han have taken over entire Nation.”
We hop in a cab and head back to Ambra’s. Late afternoon was upon us and we’d plans to head to Suzhou, city of imperial gardens where retired dynasts would contemplate the human condition amongst their harem. We were meant to go early that morning – if cross-town shenanigans hadn’t beckoned – but if we waited ‘til afternoon we could hitch a ride with Anna and her sister who were already heading that way. They’d been invited to an (exclusive?) yacht party – and there was a slight possibility we could join (she said would ask).
If we couldn’t crash the boat party, we’d resolved to simply wander the streets that night. True, it was a holiday weekend and every room in town was booked; it was also scheduled to rain. We had neither money, sufficient clothing nor the faintest sense of direction, though somehow we’d find our inner dragon. The air was sweet, the breeze unbridled. Another adventure was nigh.