“I was talking to Beth and Lacey today,” my husband told me a few weeks ago.
“Oh, your classmates from Nanjing? I’m glad we’re not the only ones who moved to Shanghai for our internships. We really need to invite them to dinner one of these days,” I answered.
“Yeah, actually, guess what? Beth works just one station away from here, on line 2. But the two of them are living way over by Hongqiao.”
“That’s so far!” I said, thinking about my husband’s own 1-hour commute every day. Beth’s must be at least an hour and a half.
“Yeah, I was thinking since we have an extra bedroom in this apartment we should have seen if she wanted to rent it,” he continued, “you know, it would be a lot more convenient for her and it would help us pay the bills. We still haven’t come up with the rent for May.”
“That would be really cool, but we can’t ask her that now. That wouldn’t be fair to Lacey.”
“I know. But it would have worked out perfectly.”
Well, a few weeks passed, everyone got back to town after Chinese New Year, and my husband started back to his leave-the-house-at-7-get-home-at-7 schedule. And then last week he got a call from Beth. He called me right afterward to see what I thought. Some after-the-fact technicality had come up in Beth and Lacey’s housing contract and she wouldn’t be able to stay there after all. Kind of par for the course in the chaos that is finding a place to rent in China. Add to that, though, the expense of living in a city like Shanghai and the short-term schedule that my husband and his classmates are all on, and it’s understandable why Beth was in such a tough spot. She had called asking my husband if he had any recommendations for a good real estate agent, one who preferably could handle emergencies. We offered her the second room in our apartment.
So mild-mannered but witty Beth moved in last weekend, and we all celebrated by going out to dinner in a neighborhood that didn’t actually have any viable forms of dinner. We were trying to see a movie afterwards, and apparently Movie Neighborhood and Affordable Dinner Neighborhood are not a very close commute. Shanghai is kind of two cities smashed into one. One of those cities is in China. It’s the kind of place where you live on the seventh floor of a building with no elevators, where you have to dump a bucket of water in your toilet sometimes to get it to flush, where you can buy a whole chicken out on the street and they kill and pluck it for you, and where dinner is about $1.50 US. $3.00 tops, if you want to get fancy. The second city is like an amped-up Manhattan with a Ladies’ Club outing to get to. It’s all finance companies and shopping malls, but there’s not anything you could actually afford in those malls. The stores you stroll past in those malls have names like St. Laurent Paris, Miu Miu and Mont Blanc. Those malls hire dudes to stand next to every door and you feel bad walking out of them because you’re wearing your running shoes and you’re pretty sure the door dudes are going to go home and talk about the shabby American they had to hold the door for today. And that second city is where you have to go to find a movie theater, and there aren’t a lot of places for get-to-know-your-new-roommate dinners in that city.
We paused at the door of a Japanese place that looked sort of affordable. There was wheatgrass growing on stainless silver trays in the window. I counted the bills in my purse, coming up with about $8 total. The movie tickets had been a lot more than we’d been planning on, since they told us the student discount only worked during the day.
“Let’s go out and see what we can find down the street.”
It was one of the last cold evenings of the year. March was apparently coming in with its last burst of lion energy. Even now, five days later, I’m opening my apartment windows and the rickety heater has been resting silently for at least 48 hours. But that night the wind was cold, and the three of us rambled past the subway stop, down a little street south of the expat housing developments where people were walking around and it looked like we might be getting closer to China again. We saw some flashing lights; they were all spas and massage parlors, but I thought I saw a convenience store up ahead and we might just have a shot.
A lady was helping her little boy pee on the side of the sidewalk. Afterwards, she bundled him back up in at least 14 layers of padded clothing that made him toddle around like a marshmallow, round except for the sewn-in slits that exposed his little bum in the back. Beth was talking about the kinds of fruit she wanted to look for and how they compared here to the prices at her grandmother’s house in Taiwan, and I was getting hungry thinking of the prospect of finding some mangosteens or dragon eyes. “Where the heck am I and what am I doing here?” I thought, watching the lights from the department stores behind us reflect in a lazy blink from the darkened windows lining the street ahead. The cold wind bit at my cheeks and inflated my bangs yet again and something my husband was saying was punctuated with a little corny joke that was supposed to be my cue to laugh.
I snapped back to the conversation and joined with a joke about duck stomachs being packaged like candy and we all giggled together. My husband squeezed my hand and rubbed the back of my fingers to warm them up and I thought, “Nevermind. I know exactly where I am.”