A Room for Three
By Ouyang Yu
Sometimes one does not know why one goes to a place till one actually goes there and even when one goes there and comes back from there one still does not know why he goes there in the first place. The difference between prior to going and subsequent to going lies in the fact that one goes without knowledge and comes back with a secret. It is a secret that I have kept to myself for many years till now.
The story is simple enough. I went out with a friend one night and slept in the same room with him and a girl he had found on his way. Well, the rest of the story is here, if you are interested enough to come with me.
'You contact M. when you go to Guangzhou,' said Small as he raised his mobile phone to his ear, getting M. on the phone straight away. Contrary to his name, Small was big. Tall and thin-faced, Small had the reputation of having all the poets in the country under his fingertips. If you need to contact anyone, just tell him and he'll organise everything from food to accommodation, apparently all for free, as I later learnt from my experience, and all at the press of a button on his mobile phone.
Days later, as I stood waiting on a street corner, having just disembarked from a long-distance coach on a one-hour journey, smoking a locally produced cigarette, Wuyeshen or Five-leaved God, I surveyed this city of concrete, hardly any different from any other cities I had been to in China. Buildings stood tall and bulgy around me, as strange as the faces of the strangers passing by: A woman came out of the entrance to a hotel across the road, some food for imagination. These days, a star-rated hotel anywhere in the country was a combination of at least three things, accommodation, food and pleasure. The man who sold me the cigarette pack disappeared inside the narrow hallway. The street I stood by joined with another street in a distance.
Shortly after, M. came out of nowhere, his mobile phone glued to his ear as mine was to mine, checking and re-checking, our four eyes looking in different directions till they finally met.
M. was in his mid-30s. He wore a beige T-shirt and told me he originally came from Yellow Stone, Lake North, and had recently bought an apartment in this migrant city, a city of migrants, internal migrants within China. We walked as he talked, filling me in on what he did, working in a computer company and writing poetry, which he preferred not to submit to any official literary journals or magazines. 'Did you just keep them in a pile and put the pile in a corner for posterity?' I said, glad I had finally found someone who was heroic enough to defy the publishing world.
'I put them online,' M. said, simply.
At that, my mind leapt to a plethora of online journals featuring poets from all over the country, where a poet plays the multiple-role of self-publisher, critic or commentator and, ultimately, an independent voice unbound by any restrictions, Western or Chinese. Questions surged to my lips, only to be swallowed back.
It did not take us long to find the building where C. lived. The corridor we reached via a lift seemed to be rigid with barred doors on either side, a concrete structure of invisible beings, through which a December drought freely blew, bringing a sense of desolation.
As soon as C., more solid in stature and rounder-faced than M., opened the wooden door, then the iron door, and showed me in his empty sitting room, M. excused himself as he had to return to work. After a brief introduction, I offered C. a cigarette in exchange for his tea and he told me a number of things, all in quick succession, ending with one about his new girlfriend behind a closed door, slightly ajar to allow a glimpse of what seemed to be a girl's back turned towards the door while she herself was obviously facing a desktop computer.
'We live together,' C. whispered, to me. 'But we have adopted an AA system.'
This means they live by a system in which they share their expenses.
C. took me into his study lined with books on all sides. Those were books written or translated in Chinese, poetry, fiction and non-fiction. At random, I chose a book of French poetry by Pu Lei Wei Er or Jacques Prevert, and read: 'I love those who like me' (J'aime celui qui m'aime), noting that 'love' in French had descended into 'like' in Chinese. Knowing that I was from Australia, C. showed me a copy of a magazine called Otherland, saying that that was the only Chinese book from Australia that he had in his possession. As we chatted he drew my attention to a stack of paper held in a large folder, each half written with characters on a particular subject, e.g., rain. He told me that this was what he was working on at the moment, having grown tired of long-winded stuff published in literary journals or magazines. I took a quick look and saw these words, 'In time rain will be decoded as it seeps into the soil, each drop a dream.' I put the stack back and wondered if there was any access to the Internet. There was, he said and let me use his laptop to get the emails while excusing himself as he went out the door. It was one of these non-email days on which the only thing you got turned out to be junk: some American soldier from Iraq wanted you to receive a large sum of money or a manager in a Nigeria bank contacted you about a potentially lucrative business or someone by the name of Chong from Hong Kong told you of the death of a billionaire sharing your surname whose bank account containing millions of dollars had been inactive for years and would be taken by the government if no real action was taken.
I trashed them instantly.
As darkness fell in this cold and dump city, C. came back into my study, actually his, to take me out for dinner. I noticed he hardly ever asked me anything about myself or my country. He talked only about himself, his writing and his writing friends. Some of them I knew personally and others I had only heard about. There was no way I could start talking about myself. I suspected that the introduction had been done, prior to my arrival, over an invisible network of telephone calls. When he wondered what type of dishes I liked, Cantonese, Sichuanese, Shanghainese, or Chaozhou, I settled for the last as I had never had it before. Soon we found ourselves sitting on the second floor of Haoji Caiguan, a Chaozhou-style restaurant. Chaozhou, by the way, is known in English as Teochew. Earlier, when C. suggested going out for dinner, I had asked if he'd get his wife to come with us, but he said no and explained that they would often do things separately, and happily. At the same time when I felt slightly uneasy, even guilty, I envied him the kind of freedom he had somehow acquired for himself.
As dishes were brought up, C. made a phone call to M., for him to join us. The dishes we had consisted of Brewed Tofu, White Cloud Pig Hands, Ten-fragrance Drunken Pork Ribs, Vegetable-breast Stir-fried with Egg-cake, and Iron-plate Beef. The names might sound fanciful but the taste fell far short of my expectation as I couldn't tell the difference of this style of dishes from any other styles. Still, if it counted as such and was presented as such, I might treat it as such as well, on top of praising them highly; you would have to if you were entertained with free meals.
Over dinner they asked what I'd like to do afterwards, I said it's up to them. They had a short discussion and decided we should go to this nightclub called Kala Okay Club. At Kala Okay, lights were glaring, music was loud and drinks were plenty. Every time I went to the loo I took a couple of photographs of the yellow liquid that came out of my body and the dimly lit dark brown surfaces of the surrounding partition, not knowing why but doing it regardless. By 11pm, I had drunken so much beer that I could hardly take one more drop. C., M. and I were shouting at one another. I could not hear distinctly what they were talking about and I doubted very much that they could hear what I was saying. Girls were dancing not far from us, in alluring attire, but alcohol had reduced us to semi-impotence and a kind of stupor from which we could hardly extract ourselves.
When we stumbled back to C.'s house, it was close to midnight. To clear our heads, I suggested we do a poetry reading. The minute I said it M. had already got online and pulled off a few of his own poems as well as C.'s poems and started reading. I remained unmoved till the last four lines of a poem as something was stirring in my heart. I said, 'Can you repeat that?' He read the last four lines again,
Then, it was C.'s turn. He had taken time to freshen up and came back into his study with freshly brewed tea. From the poems M. had pulled off online, he chose one and read. I listened and said: Read another one. I said this because I heard 'rain shed tears'. He read another one and I said: Do us one more. I said this because I heard 'I pray for motherland's spring'. I didn't say anything. I just let him rumble on till he said, 'The next poem is titled, "I farted in the conference on environmental protection"' when we all burst out laughing. My turn came at midnight in China and 10pm in Australia. I showed them some translations. Out of a number of poets, they seemed to like Gig Ryan and John Kinsella better. I wrote a poem then and there which failed to arouse any interest.
'Let's go out,' C. said, as if spurred by the inaction of my poem, composed on the spot, or I assumed that was the case. I was amazed to see so many people eating when we arrived at a place called Dayong or Big Surge, a night market, particularly as this was well past midnight; any place in a Melbourne suburb after 9pm would be as dead as a graveyard but here every table in the open outside the restaurants was surrounded with eating heads and lit up with glaring lamplights and it was hard to find a single restaurant that was not overcrowded at 1am. Even though I had drunken myself nearly stupid at the Kala Okay club, the poetry reading, the Iron Kuanyin tea and the fresh post-midnight air acted like a stimulus that seemed to create a hole in my stomach. In a disembodied moment, I stood aside and, with some disgust, watched myself devour a bowl of shrimp congee while listening to C. talking about who had been through the place in paying a visit to him, when I came to a sudden realization: I was one of the latest who had come from afar to pay a visit to him, supposedly the best one in town, as M. had previously described. Thus, inadvertently, I had turned myself into his fan, a pilgrim, without meaning to. The thought came to me like a soft slap across my face but I pretended that nothing had happened, continuing to listen to him rumbling on about other poets, their affairs and their achievements, sometimes indistinguishably the same.
On a full stomach way past midnight, I was gratified enough to hand myself over to them for the rest of the night. Soon, it turned out that they were not taking me back to C.'s place. Instead, they walked me to a nearby hotel, Sunshine Hotel. I didn't bother asking how much either C. or M. or both of them paid on my behalf but the three of us squeezed ourselves into one room, C. and I on one bed each, and
M. on a mattress spread on the floor because he was younger and insisted on having it rough. I had many nights shared with friends or people like this in the past but had never stayed in one room with two other poets. When we lay down after switching off the lights, there appeared a temporary silence, in which I could see the streetlight flooding into the window across C.'s quilt and mine, with shivering shadows of leaves. I got up, went to the window and drew the curtains as the light made it hard for us to sleep. After I crept back into my quilt, a voice issued from a corner on the floor, obviously from M., saying, 'What do you think an ideal poet should be?'
I didn't make a response. I wanted to hear what C. had to say. Soon enough, he said, 'Someone who is so unique that he defies duplication.'
'You think that is possible these days?' The voice said, on the floor.
'Why not?' came C.'s muffled voice from under the thick quilt. 'Think of Prevert who's had such an impact. An ideal poet should be someone who can exert influence over a whole generation.'
'I have no desire for anything like that,' the floor-based voice said. 'For me, an ideal poet is someone who does his day job and writes whenever he can and wherever he can. When he got a minute, he posts his poems online. If people like them, that's fine. If people ignore them, so what? One continues to live his life the way he chooses. If he does not make a quid from his poetry, it does not worry him because he does not expect to make anything out of his poetry. All he does is live his poetry or let his poetry live him.'
'Well put, well put,' I said. 'I don't know what I can add after that except perhaps that there really is nothing ideal about being a poet, even about being an ideal poet. For me, if there is only one reader left in the whole world who likes to read my poetry, even if it is only a single poem, I am happy—'
A snoring sound came tumbling out of the bed on my right, where C. in a white mound had gone into a sound sleep, reminding me that there was no point going on about something ideal at this late hour. I stopped to listen to his regular and rhythmical snoring, soon joined by an even louder thunder on the floor. Pretty soon, I was gone myself.
The next morning, I woke up early and got up early when the two were still fast asleep. After the usual morning routine involving the three 'dones', teeth done, face done and bowel movement done, I went around to the balcony and stood there watching. People came from all directions and went to all directions. Apparently, there was a school across the street. The sky was leaden with grey clouds but people walked around in colours, yellow caps, red clothes, white skirts or shirts, epitome of a nation vastly different from A. D. Hope's 'drab green' and 'desolate grey' Australia.
The sky may not be as clean but the faces of the people were lit up with smiles and an optimism I had grown out of. Thinking of Xiong, my friend in Guangzhou, I gave him a call, saying that I'd like to go back in the afternoon.
Neither M. nor C. would let me go, after they got up and heard my plan. They wanted me to stay for more fun as there would be more poets to meet in the afternoon. 'At least one more night before you go,' C. said resolutely. I could see that M. wasn't that sure as he seemed to have something else on his mind. Sure enough, he excused himself shortly after.
Our subsequent visit to a local poet-cum-businessman was an eye-opener in itself. Mr Sun had a square dark face that one could tell was Cantonese from meters away but he spoke softly in a voice that seemed clogged with smoke-induced phlegm, which he cleared his throat off every once in a while. In his new black Mercedes Benz, he drove us to have a look around. I thought he was taking us to a scenic spot but as we wounded our way through a wooded hill along a wet asphalt road, I could see that trees were thinning out as the road took us right to an open space where it could go no further. We got out of the car, the three of us, the leather-clad and dark glass-wearing Mr Sun, the overcoat-clad C. and I myself, wearing my brown leather-coat that I had hardly worn in Melbourne. We were now on top of a wind-swept hill, cut in half by numerous earthmovers carrying yellow earth from one place to another. I had the impression that the bowels of the hill were being cut open in the shape of an open book, for the only reader, the sky, to gaze down upon. However, Mr Sun's words quickly alerted me to the reality: clusters of high-rises, worth billions of yuan, would soon grow out of the earth and rocks. While they stood there enthusing about a future rich with wealth for the wealthy, I remained motionless, struck wordless by the enormity of the fast-paced development aimed at the accumulation of riches.
Afterwards, when we were back in Mr Sun's villa, a two-storey house in a Mountain Village, a residential area where everything looked brand new and cars that swam in and out seemed mostly European in their makes and a few Japanese, I was shown around in his large house that looked like a display home. For a moment, I felt as if I were a prospective house-buyer. I took a mental note but nothing registered. All it was subsequently converted into was a choice of words: spacious, luxurious, leathery and fake, such as represented by the huge rockery in the middle of the house, a structure of rockwork known blatantly in China as jiashan, Fake Mountain, and embraced artistically as such. On the wall, there wasn't one painting that was worth mentioning; perhaps the owner of the house had not learnt to appreciate paintings as collectible and marketable products worth more than houses.
Upstairs in Mr Sun's den, a studio complete with a set of latest video-playing facilities and sound systems, we cracked melon seeds, ate fruit, smoked cigarettes and drank tea while watching Jia Zhangke's The Good People of the Three Gorges, a documentary that was presented as fiction. I was close to something like tears towards the end but it was a flitting sensation, flickering for a second, before it was gone. No one made any comments on the film, a sign that everyone thought it was okay.
Time went fast this way. Soon it was dark again. C. made a few phone calls and revealed that we were going to a literary dinner at Truth, Good and Beauty, a restaurant whose name was based on the first two lines of a pop song, titled, zhen shan mei zhige (The Song of Truth, Good and Beauty), that goes: 'With lovely zhen shan mei, you are intoxicated in a dream...'.
Words failed to describe how many dishes were served and how many books changed hands at Zhen, Shan, Mei. At one stage, I had to sit on a pile of books given me for free by writers from all over the place, variously called the 'best', 'the most well-known' or 'the real good' ones, often also accompanied with an official title, such as 'company director so and so' or 'deputy bureau-chief so and so', although I must admit that I had never heard of or read about them before. They exchanged pleasantries and vied with each other in drinking the white liquor, laughing and talking boisterously. Only one person, a short man with a pale face sitting next to me, drank neither alcohol nor smoked. On the contrary, he suggested that he never liked such occasions for, in his words, 'no one can talk any sense. Brains die the minute alcohol and smoke sink in. You come happy expecting interesting things to happen but go away feeling worse because nothing happens except the hard-working stomachs loaded with food. I never enjoy myself. I just come and wait till it finishes.'
This man made me feel vulgar, drifting along with others in a convivial flow of wine and soup and tea, red, milky and greenish. When he learnt that I was from Australia, his interest was aroused enough to ask, 'Is it worthwhile buying a farm there?' Pretty soon I learnt from him that he had a friend who was going to Australia in a few months' time as he intended to buy a farm there, thinking that a farm in Australia must resemble a Chinese village located at the foot of a green hill surrounded by paddy fields with a little creek running through, all only a couple of hours away from the nearest city. I scorned at such ideas and told him that his friend might find himself bored to death in a farm hundreds of kilometers from any metropolitan cities with no one for company for miles around and for months on end. 'He may find that he doesn't even have mobile phone coverage in his area,' I said. 'And, then, when his delegation comes to see him from China, they may have to take a long bus ride before they see him languishing in a chair half caked with dust, himself dying to leave and bursting into tears at the sight of his country fellows.'
I thought the dinner, together with the night, would end there, amidst their laughter at my joke about the Australian farm but it didn't. In fact, it was only the beginning. As M. resurfaced from nowhere, we, Mr Sun, C., M., Field, the short and dry guy who never drank or smoked, and I, on Sun's recommendation, went to a teahouse somewhere in town. Although he didn't say anything, I suspected that it was partly owned by Sun himself. Dragonwell Tea gave me the impression that I had known such places all my life, perhaps in my previous life. I went in and sat down in one of those redwood chairs and was served tea that came in a long and thin glass through which you could see the leaves hanging in the water like sea grass. I looked around me and saw scrolls hanging on the wall, bearing a long ci by Eastern Slope Su, written in a flowing and flying calligraphic style, as well as a couple of poems by Li Bai. It was not till then that I suggested they do a reading, each and everyone from their own collection(s), published or self-published, mostly self-published, such as mine, titled, Shit. They wanted me to come first because I was the first to make the suggestion. On the strength of the white liquor—one tiny little cup as head blasting as two bottles of beer—I had had, I plunged into one of the poems that went, something like this:
Seeing the blank faces around me, joined with more, of four girls who served us tea, I had to explain what the poem said and even sang the second stanza to show how it sounded. That produced an unexpected result on one of the girls, the one with slit-eyes but big hair, who started humming a song to herself. I had noticed her earlier but I immediately gave her up as she wasn't a good looker. However, she seemed quite taken by C. as he recited something he wrote in a dramatic manner, a bit more prosaic than poetic but more poetry than prose, in a curious sort of way, 'Once again, I want to waste my life a little, with beautiful women, beautiful wine and beautiful poetry. I am an emperor of my own destiny. And I don't give a shit, about nation, nationality, and nonsense.'
I noticed others were growing slightly fidgety, particularly when words like 'nationality' were mentioned.
'Girls,' C. was getting excited, perhaps he took their silence as an awed compliment. 'Bring us beer!' Mr Sun, seeing that it was already quite late, whispered into his ear that they were closing. When all the other girls left, Feng remained, clearing the table and switching off the lights. Eventually, when we all came outside, we saw her standing at the door, a dark and lonely shadow, as if she did not know what to do.
'You want us to take you home, Feng?' C. said with some concern.
'Why not?' Feng said. 'Are you going the same way?'
'What does it matter if we don't?' C. said as he swept her struggling into his arms. The girl immediately pushed him off, muttering something.
When the taxi arrived, C., Feng and I went in, I in the front seat, leaving them two in the back. I could hear from the directions C. had given that we were going to a hotel in the Industrial Development Zone. On the way, C. asked what other songs Feng could sing and if she would like to sing us something like 'A Personal Secret'. To my surprise, Feng began singing:
'You are great,' I could hear C. say to Feng although I found it a vulgarly plain ditty, quite fitting the girl's style. Then he lowered his voice and said something in a whisper. The girl giggled, so obviously beyond herself with excitement that I felt slightly uneasy and apprehensive myself, looking ahead at the lamp-lit street becoming wider but more deserted until we came to a hotel that seemed much larger in space but also much emptier than the one we had stayed in town, with a huge square in front of it.
While C. was checking in I entered into a conversation with the girl. She told me that she came from a country town. She had married but was later divorced because her man had had an affair with a younger woman. Then she moved from the town to the city and became a singing girl for a number of years before she decided she had had enough, wanting instead to work in a teahouse as the wages there were more stable and people were 'nicer'. While talking with her, I was wondering if C. would reserve two rooms, one for him and I, and the other for Feng.
As it turned out, he reserved only one room for all of us. What is going to happen? I thought to myself. How are we three going to sleep the two beds? By taking turns? Or are we going to share this girl between ourselves? But can't C. see that I don't have any desire for her? Even if I am interested in the girl, a stranger, how can we ever do it in the other person's presence? And I can see that the girl is not interested in me at all. As if reading my mind, C. pointed out the bed in the corner of the room and said, 'You sleep in this one.' He didn't tell me where he was going to spend the night; he didn't need to. By implication, he was going to stay in the bed next to mine, perhaps with the girl, who he was now holding in his arms, waltzing her around in the large space of the room near the curtained window. The girl had stopped struggling although she did not stop singing. If I was not mistaken, she must be singing 'Drunken Wind', with words to this effect, 'empty in a drunken life and dead dream, lingering with you after getting drunk'.
I couldn't be bothered any longer as I was dead tired. Whatever they wanted to do was entirely up to C. and his girl, whom I could see was half enjoying the pull-push show. I went to the washroom, had a shower and relieved myself before I came out again, with these words directed to C., 'I have to go to bed now.' I had meant to say please switch off the lights and don't make any noise but I said not a word. They didn't bother me, either. By now they were tightly clasped in a two-body stack in C.'s own bed, both with clothes on. From where I was standing, less than a meter away, I could hardly tell them apart. While they did not look, I took off my clothes and crept underneath my quilt. I could hear the girl whispering her muffled protest, 'No, I don't want it, I don't want it', but I pretended that I heard nothing. Instead, I turned on my right side, with my face turned facing the wall.
The next morning, when I woke up and turned around—I was amazed that I had somehow managed to have been sleeping facing the wall all night, as if in an attempt to avoid embarrassing them—I saw the girl lying wrapped up in her sheets, her face turned towards me. The very first thing she said to me was, 'He's done it.'
Even though it's none of my business whether C. had done it or not, I craned my head up and forward to see if he was there, lying to her side, when I realized there was no one but the two of us in the same room. Quickly, I got out of my bed and did the usual thing again, doing my teeth, washing my face and trying to take a crap—the last one I couldn't successfully achieve, too much aware of the woman in the room. When I came out, unrelieved, Feng had been dressed up, her face hidden behind her straggling hair, waiting impatiently to go to the bathroom. I let her and went to the window myself, drawing the curtains open.
Outside, a dry canal with rotten leaves cut through the industrial zone that looked like a huge desert with young, thin trees. I stood in the morning light, for a long time, wondering why I had never heard a single sound of ecstasy next bed last night and where C. had gone. Perhaps he, after all, had booked two rooms and, after I fell asleep and he enjoyed himself, he had gone to his own separate room?QLRS Vol. 11 No. 4 Oct 2012