Excerpts from I Must Seduce You: Dispatches from the Former Third World

by Nick Curley

TUESDAY, MAY 31

Hurled across the globe on Delta Airlines, I live this day in full before most people I have ever met finish lunch. Dad auditions for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in Manhattan tomorrow: we will narrowly miss crossing paths.

At twelve consecutive hours in the air, plus an hour at Tokyo’s airport and another four to Beijing, it is my all-time longest slab of transit. Yet I find the experience easy, even coddling. I am constantly fed. Lights are dimmed in the cabin to provoke frequent naps, each row wrapped under blankets and the milky glow of revolving in-flight movies. Rayna drools softly onto my shoulder as we melt into cooing children, half awake and grasping at one another. How did we get here? I ask, just as I’ve asked so many times when looking into her eyes. New York and every other home is quickly out of sight, lost to the black sea below the porthole, receding until squints of daybreak. I finger peanuts from a shrunken bag one at a time, curling my pointer like an elephant’s trunk, wondering if the great explorers ever let themselves be incubated like this. And is that Magellan in the baggage claim, or just some dude with a curled beard?

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 1

We are picked up at the airport by the residency’s director Crystal and her boyfriend Fergus. They are aptly named: she’s a bubbly Floridian with translucent skin, he’s a toad from Sydney with an impotent goatee. We’ve been traveling for nearly twenty-four hours. My face is beginning to feel like one of those rubbery Halloween masks of Nixon. A taxi drives the four of us to a dim and rural village on the outskirts of Beijing, in the Fifth Ring of the city’s seven-layer dartboard formation. At 11pm, seemingly the only business open is a kebob stand outside of an ex-pat high school. When we arrive at what will be our home for the next eight weeks, Crystal lists the studio apartment’s many broken or absent creature comforts. I am struck with a sense of panic so sudden and intense that I begin wheezing. If I’d gone to sleepaway camp, this would all make sense.

We express interest in going to a local bar, and are told there are none. The four of us each buy a large bottle of pilsner at thirty-five cents apiece, drinking them while walking down the virtually unlit dirt road. I ask Fergus what he likes about Beijing, in some desperate effort to make conversation. “There’s a lot of stuff to do here,” he says, before spitting phlegm into a ten foot tall mound of garbage.

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 15

I awake nude just after dawn to a venomous churning in my stomach. The urge to poop is profound. This one has the potential to be great or disastrous, the birth of Christ or Rosemary’s Baby. With a clenched scurry I throw a bath towel over my best bits and walk downstairs to the bathroom. On arrival I smell the perfumed steam of the shower. Behind the warm locked door, Jocelyn is starting her second day with us bright and early, singing over our streaming nozzle’s hiss the torch song “Tears Dry on Their Own” by British crooner Amy Winehouse, who will die roughly five weeks from today.

I knock on the door, panicked but meek. I’m certainly not going to drag her out of there to commit the atrocity that is unraveling in my gut. I pace the living room in the hopes that she’ll emerge before my bowels do, but after a few minutes I bolt from the door with no rational destination in mind. The village does have a public bathroom: a darkened corner behind a row of restaurants and shops that seems to have been designed by the Marquis de Sade. On warm days its stench is capable of welling tears from ducts, and producing a toxin in one’s mouth that tastes like the entirety of a third-rate nursing home.

The live-in guard of the wooden front gate to our studios is our only neighbor awake at this hour. I ask him for use of his facilities: “He just grinned and shook his head: ‘No’ was all he said.”

Beijing’s public restrooms, while plentiful, tend to be series of stalled-off holes in the ground. One quickly learns to mount a kind of hovering squat, as if kidnapping an invisible bronco from a filthy stable. Yet this marks the first time in many years in which I have, purely out of desperation, huddled upon a grassy knoll and shat outdoors. It remains a private moment, nicely settled in the shadows of a tin awning. Above me, a row of linens wafts off a low-hung clothesline, a veritable star of Bethlehem that has guided me to this secluded spot. The results are barbarous, but in the wake of these bombings: peace.

While hunched down, I remember that today is my sister’s twenty-second birthday, and that I need to send her the letter of best wishes I’ve been working on.

THURSDAY, JUNE 23

The only American we know who lives full time in Beijing is a photographer named Matthew, known as Fluff to his friends for reasons unclear. We attend a gallery opening for a collection of sculptures made by one of his cohorts. It’s held in the courtyard of a creaking temple that wears soot on its face like an orphan. The work on display was a set of large, neon-colored plaster statues shaped like the chemical compounds that form LSD. Refreshments were sparse and coveted, and there was little in the way of conversation until a blonde boy – no older than six, playing a game of chase with his sister – slammed squarely into a Portabella-shaped figure, cracking off a substantial portion of the atom’s head. The piece was priced at $12,000. With the eyes of the stunned crowd upon him, the boy ran like hell.

THURSDAY, JULY 7

I have completely forgotten how to make male friends.

SUNDAY, JULY 17

CAB VOCAB.
Left – “Zuoguai.”
Right – “Yòuguăi.”
Go straight ahead – “Yìzhízŏu.”
Stop – “Tíng.”
Go – “Qù.”
A little more – “Yīdian dian.”
Lose these cops – “Shīqùle zhèxiē jingcha.”
Hurry, they’re gaining on us – “Cōngcōng, tāmen duì women huòdé.”
I was wrongfully accused – “Wo yuānwang.”
Crimes of passion – “Fànzuì de jīqíng.”
You never saw me here – “Ni cónglái méiyou jiànguò wo zài zhèll.”
I will gladly take the wheel – “Wu huì hěn lèyì caiqu lún.”
Stick shift is easier than anticipated – “Biànsù gan bi yùqí de gèng róngyì.”
We’ve lost them – “Women yijīng shīqùle tāmen.”
You’ve saved us from certain imprisonment – “Nín yi baocún cóng women yīdìng jiānjìn.”
I am too handsome for jail – “Wu tài yīngjùn de jiānyù.”
Please touch your palm to mine in solidarity – “Qing chùmō ni de shouzhang kuàng tuánjié.”
Can you break a hundred? – “Ni kěyi dapò yī bainián?”
No matter, you earned it – “Bùyòng dānxīn, ni yijīng yíngdéle.”
Don’t cry… – “Bùyào kū…”
I will never forget you – “Wu yongyuan bù huì wàngjì ni.”
Farewell, strong ally – “Gàobié shí, qiángdà de méngyou.”

MONDAY, JULY 25

I take a walk alone around two-thirty in the morning after Rayna has gone to bed. I walk for ten minutes or so out of the village onto the main drag. Until I reach the roadway, I’m in pitch black, illuminated only by sporadic cabs, scooters, flatbeds and vans barreling down the narrow alley at a clip of thirty to fifty miles per hour, careening right beside me, catching a faceful of hot exhaust. I’m walking nowhere in particular, and it occurs to me that if something dangerous happens, I will have risked life and limb for no reason other than restlessness. But the chiseled Rogue presses on. Seemingly no one but the drivers are awake. The orange embers of the late night chicken and beer huts were extinguished hours ago.

The only business still awake is the twenty-four hour hair salon. You may wonder who is getting a trim at this hour, and you would be precisely right. In China, brothels are an unspoken constant, only marginally outlawed and typically posing as barber shops or spas.

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of prostitution, if only in the same way that I wish I knew what fired gunpowder smells like. I’m intrigued, albeit not as a potential patron: there will be no participatory journalism here. Roadside, I watch their tinted window from a safe distance. To my left two homeless mutts of lean body and mild tempo push their snouts through a pile of robust trash. It’s always a relief to me when wandering the streets to I find myself alongside a good dog. These two have the disposition of fellow flâneurs.

From less than ten yards back I see a room of virtually empty shelves: they are lined with a couple of foggy, low slung mirrors, gels and perfumes. At center stands a plastic desk where two girls, both younger than me, sit cross-legged in mildly arousing pajamas. Hunkered down with them is a young man roughly their age and height, his hair as long as theirs, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, his sneakers propped up on the desk as he shovels down a bowl of leftovers. I know theirs must be a problematic day job, but in the moment I smile at their mundane evening. Work is work. They are watching TV. Simply watching television like they were in a Newton, Massachusetts rec room. I can’t make out the figures onscreen, but the pixels are bright and swirling.

The taller of the two girls turns to see me staring in from her spot at the desk. She stands and begins walking toward me. I see now that her legs are bare, save a pair of cheap cotton shorts and ragged pink slippers. A grown woman dressed for baby’s first sleepover. I weakly wave and begin literally backpedaling, my heart lodged firmly in my tightening throat. I’m a dozen steps back up the road before I hear her open the door and shout a jaunty “Hello!”, without a shred of seduction, the word serving more as a burglar alarm than greeting. I don’t speak or turn back, briskly walking home with purpose, while the trash hounds hobble off in the other direction.

Nick Curley is an Associate Editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn. He spent the summer of 2011 at an artist’s residency in Beijing, seeking hijinks and working on a novel about wish fulfillment. I Must Seduce You is the chapbook journal chronicling his surreal adventures throughout China. For sales/reading/recipe inquiries, contact nick.james.curley AT gmail.com.

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