When you’re living in another country, everything, everyday is shiny and new.
Even when you live there long enough to fly other places, return to that city, and have it feel like home. Everything is amplified: the sights, the smells, the colors. I’ll never forget being hung-over in a humid, open-air food market and the rawness of it all made me run for the trash can outside.
There’s promise in every new day because you’re not at “home.” Each day you could possibly see or experience something you’ve never seen or experienced in your life. Like the time I saw the taxi driver peeing into some bushes in plain sight before 8 a.m. Public restrooms are seemingly non-existent in Shanghai. Or how he pronounced it, “Shung-guy.” Him. His accent was thick, and Russian sounding. When I first laid eyes on him, I felt as though my feet moved me to him, disconnected from consciousness. He was one of the most beautiful people I had ever seen. Both of our friends at the bar went to the bathroom at the same time, and all of a sudden, there I was. Asking him if he was Italian. He thought it was funny that I perceived him to be Italian, and he had a name I had never heard of and will never forget. “Wait, Darko, like ‘Donnie Darko’?” I asked. Yes, he informed me, it’s a very common name in Serbia, where he turned out to be from. Only a few times in my life have I ever felt such a magnetic draw. I felt literally, not figuratively, pulled to him.
Our friends returned from the bathrooms, and we went on to the next bar. We got sweaty and danced, and my heart raced. He told me later that when I wasn’t looking, the bartender flashed him a toothy grin and a double-thumbs up. We kissed, our faces mashed together, hungry, yearning and desperate. My apartment had recently been in a fire, and was without running water or electricity, but I took him there anyway. We quickly realized how foolish this idea was, and my last gesture in that apartment I loved so much was throwing my King-sized mattress out a 19th story window in frustration. We tried to check into the shady hotel next door, but they didn’t speak English. I’m fairly certain they thought I was a prostitute. I had forgotten my shoes in the taxi, and was wearing a short dress, lots of makeup and house shoes. We went to my last resort, the place I was currently staying — my boss’ apartment. Or more precisely, her father’s mansion of a condo in the extremely wealthy Xintiandi district.
This was the kind of place where the elevator brings you *into the apartment.* I knew this was a terrible idea, but I brought him anyways. I was drunk from alcohol, but also drunk from HIM. I had tunnel vision, big time. Just like when I drank back then, it was the same with him, I couldn’t get enough. I never stopped until I was passed out. After we had sex, we sat in this enormous window well, and he rolled spliffs. I began preferring that European mixture of tobacco and marijuana to just joints by themselves. We sat and we talked, and eventually we moved to the glass balcony, drinking beers, chain-smoking, and watching the sunrise, holding each other and kissing. It felt like a movie.
Eventually we fell asleep, and woke up to a knock at the door. It was my boss, furious that I had not only slept her father’s room (my room was right next to hers, and she slept with the door open;) but that I had brought a strange man back. She had a tutor student sitting at the dining room table. My guest was mortified, quickly gathered his things, mumbled something like his name and where he was from, shook her hand, and left. It was extremely bizarre.
Normally in times like this, I would sleep off a hangover this painful, and lay around until nighttime. This one was gonna be bad. Not that day. I couldn’t stay, not with my boss, not with that student, not with my shame. I texted him and asked where he was. He was at a park, and yes, I could join him. I got water, a piece of fruit, and a yogurt from street vendors and a convenience store. He warned me it was too much sugar, that I’d be sick. I vomited. My hair wasn’t long enough to need holding, but he wiped my face with a napkin. “I’m so sorry.” He held my hand, and we walked on cobblestone sidewalks to some park in the French Concession.
There we laid, on the perimeter of a park on a sunny Sunday, with live music and everything. My head was in his lap, and we laughed, amused at the thought that the passersby must certainly assume we’re a couple, but we hadn’t yet known each other 24 hours. He stroked my hair, and told me that he went to school in Serbia for furniture design. I squealed with delight. I graduated with an art major. Did this man’s attractiveness know no bounds? He was here to visit his brother, who moved to Shanghai and was living as an architect with his Russian wife. He was here to see if he too, could find work and a better life in China, where at that moment in history, the opportunities felt limitless. I talked about my experience teaching English to first and second graders. What they called me- “Teacher Britta,” became one of his pet names for me. But it came out differently, “Brigita” almost. I’ll never forget that accent.
For the next 2 weeks, we were inseparable, aside from when I was at work. I moved into an apartment that was being subleased for a month. The timing was perfect. It became our little home, complete with two cats: Tofu, who had anxiety and wore a t-shirt, and Tofu Jr., a tiny kitten he nicknamed “Little Man.” He was convinced Little Man was evil, and would tell me this everyday.
If we didn’t eat out, I cooked dinner, and he would do the dishes. I would kiss him in the morning, go to work, and he’d let himself out. I returned each afternoon to a spotless apartment, complete with notes on Post-Its, written in Serbian. We went dancing at my favorite bar, Dada, and he always reminded me that he was the only guy wearing a suit jacket. I taught him how to play Jenga. We danced. We went to a bar on the 92nd floor of a hotel, the “bottle opener,” the expats called it, because that’s what it looked like. We took photos, together, or the one of me in his jacket outside. I was always beaming, so proud to be with him, so excited about what I had found, this treasure that came out of nowhere. He never looked happy in them, and I didn’t figure out why until later.
I remember straddling his lap in my sublet, in that chair by the window where we smoked, wearing a blue hippy skirt, asking him to tell me in Serbian how he felt about me, and not to translate. I then told him in Spanish how I felt about him, and I didn’t translate, either. I couldn’t understand why he would act one moment like he was madly in love with me, and the next become standoffish and withdrawn. I met his brother and sister-in-law! Ate frog legs for the first time with them. We were unstoppable, I thought. Like I said, living in another country, everything feels amplified, all the time. It’s like every single day, most of your experiences are seen through a 2006 camera, stuck on “vivid color mode.”
He didn’t tell me while we were by the pond at Zhongshan Park. He didn’t tell me when I watched him play pool, beating all other players. He waited until he was back home, and called me one morning before I went to school. I couldn’t stop crying. I retched over the toilet, sick with disbelief. How…how could this be true? What about our plans to reunite in the fall? What about our nicknames, all the photos taken on my instant camera, our memories and our plans for our future?? “I… have a girlfriend,” he told me over the phone, stammering, from Serbia. I hung up on him again and again, crying, and at one point had 22 missed calls. At first he told me he had only been with her a few months, but later he told me he had been with her a few years. That whole time, our magic, something to this day I am certain one only finds a few times in your life, was built on a lie.
When we said goodbye, we both surprised each other with gifts; unwittingly the same gift, something we both loved — European butter cookies. I gave him a box for the plane, and he gave me them in a tin. He kissed me goodbye, and got on the back of his brother’s scooter. After spending two weeks together everyday, he was gone. The first time I ever heard English in that apartment building was the night he left. What I heard as I walked back upstairs, drifting out of my Chinese neighbor’s windows was the children’s song “You Are My Sunshine.” I couldn’t believe it.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are grey
You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away.”
I can’t eat those butter cookies anymore.