It was cold, even for November in Beijing. No sun shining through the gunmetal gray skies, it would be another three weeks until the central planning committee would turn the great knob that would bring heat into homes throughout the city. And I had gout again.
For three days I’d been unable to walk. Malicious imps jammed white-hot knitting needles into the big knuckle of my right foot at repeated intervals. The pain was worst just before dawn, when the uric acid in my blood – the byproduct of a weekend of ill-advised feasting on crab and Beijing duck – having crystallized while I slept, caused me to wake in sudden dark agony. Like shards of glass, the crystals settled in the furthest extremity of my circulatory system. With clenched teeth, I’d grind up a few Fenbid, a slow release Chinese brand ibuprofen, and curl up under the duvet, pinching the swollen joint between thumb and forefinger to slow the throbbing to a tolerable level.
Inevitably, I’d nod out and release my grip, and the pain would be on me like a freight train, shooting back into my foot as sure as if I’d hopped off a high curb and landed on a rusty spike. This could go on two, three times before the drugs kicked in, blessing me with a few more hours of oblivion.
That morning I’d given in and gone to the hospital. In a Chinese hospital, one is a piece of flotsam in a stagnant pond filled with viral hosts. Each patient pushes from line to line, first to get to a counter to fill out the forms necessary to wait in a second line for a few hours, at the end of which waits a bored government doctor who will poke and prod for ten seconds before pronouncing the subject fit enough to wait on a third line for whatever pharmaceuticals – real or counterfeit – might be available.
Dutifully I waited, and after my initial filing and prodding, was prescribed a bottle of Colchicine, an anti-gout agent. The pharmacist then directed me to the station of a bored looking middle-aged nurse, who told me to drop my pants and bend over. She gave me a shot of a long-acting anti-inflammatory, saying “you should feel less pain by this evening” before sending me on my way.
I popped two pills in the cab back home to my cut-rate Beijing tenement building, where I felt numb enough to pass out.
I woke up sometime before dusk, noting cheerlessly that the pain had lessened, from full-on throb to a dull ache. I felt well enough to get some writing done, and limped into the kitchen for a cup of tea. Standing by the stove, waiting for the kettle to boil, I felt suddenly dizzy, and grabbed onto an unsteady shelving unit for balance. But gravity is a cruel bitch mistress, especially to the infirmed or week.
There was a industrial sized glass bottle of condiment grade soy sauce on the top shelf, and my unsteady hand set things in motion. Though it took mere seconds for the bottle to make its final voyage as an integral unit, it seemed to happen so slowly that I felt like I could reach out at any point and stop it as it fell. But I might well have been screaming at a movie screen, trying to warn the characters in some b-grade slasher flick for all the good my heightened awareness was. The bottle hit the cold tile floor in slow motion, shattering into razor-sharp pieces of varying size in a near-perfect radius at my feet, bleeding thick and dark like a skyscraper suicide. A viscous black pool oozed across the blue tile floor pushing translucent teeth in its wake.
For a long moment I stared without blinking into the mucky, shard-filled minefield of my kitchen floor. I gazed into the abyss, and the abyss gazed back upon me – neither of us liked what we saw. My blood pressure doubled in the space of seconds, and as it did, the pain returned with a vengeance.
I am not proud of what I did next, screaming and flinging curses at the household gods. Then I flung a bowl – one of two I owned – against the wall, yelling “What the fuck do you want from me?” at whatever supernatural spirits might have been responsible. By the time I’d regained a semblance of control, porcelain debris and shards from two more shattered glasses mingled with the black muck on the cold floor.
But the madness had been replaced by an eerie calm, like the eye of a hurricane. Taking a deep breath, I slipped on a pair of plastic flip flops and set to mopping the treacherous mess into a bucket. By the time it was half filled, my hands were covered in tiny cuts and spots of blood mixed with swaths of filthy marinade on the blue tile floor.
I hobbled down the cement hallway to the elevator, dragging a blue mop bucket filled with scum and shards behind me. The usually chatty old ayi whose job it was to press the elevator buttons took one look at me and went back to her knitting. She said nothing to me on the slow descent from the tenth floor.
I remember thinking that the day was almost over, and things could get no worse. And I remember regretting the thought as soon as it formed – the words “it can get no worse” should never be thought, lest even this small streak of bleak optimism leave the thinker unprepared.
So it went that I failed to turn back in time, and instead wandered blithely past the pack of uniformed guards from the Public Safety Bureau who were huddling for warmth in my building’s doorway.
Of course, they noticed me right off the bat, a disheveled, dazed white man wearing flip flops on a cold day, blood dripping from numerous gashes, dragging a bucket filled with scum, blood and glass. To public safety professionals such as these, it might have seen like something ominous was going on.
I realized then that I might be facing the prospect of interrogation by the Beijing PSB, and not for the first time. I flashed back that horrible day, three years ago, when, the PSB had paid me an early-morning visit. It was just before the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the PRC, and one of the last holdovers of the day when Chairman Mao told the world that China had stood up and thrown off the shackles of imperialism was that foreigners were not permitted to live in common housing. We were expected to live in the new hi-rises with price tags listed in dollars, not Renminbi. Those of us not on the cushy expatriate package nipple had to live surreptitiously in regular housing, surrounded by Chinese neighbors who all knew that we were living on borrowed time. The PSB had me – and the entire expat slacker community of North-east Beijing’s Maidzedien neighborhood – dead to rights that morning. They’d served me my walking papers. But it was summer then, and I could walk. Now it was cold, and I was barely ambulatory.
But that was three years ago, and three years in Beijing might as well be a century. Along with the sea of bicycles that once stretched from curb to curb, the days of “foreigner approved housing” were gone. I had no idea why Beijing Public Safety was congregating in the lobby of my building. Did they want to check the gas meter? Would they understand that I was home with a bad case of the gout, a sick man on the edge, better left alone?
The oldest of the three was a hunchbacked woman. Her puke green uniform did not well fit her gnarled figure. It was she who spoke first, barking
“Ni Gan Shemma?!”
This is a particularly worrisome phrase, because while it’s often used to mean “What’s going on?”, it translates literally into “You dare what?”
In times of stress my Mandarin deserts me, reducing me to pidgin linguistics.
“The blood is mine!” I said, holding my palms out to the trio, who stared at me wide-eyed.
I realized that this was not a good situation. My brain had frozen up, and I was in no position to express myself with any degree of eloquence. Even if I could, how could I explain the trail of soy sauce flip-flop prints I was leaving? I hurled the contents of the bucket into the dumpster and tried to slink back into the building.
“Wait.” Said the hunchback “We have questions!”
“Can’t speak now.” I answered “Very bad day”
“Where do you live?” She asked
“Floor ten, apartment two” I shouted. “I have gout!”
I backed up the concrete stairs and into the dirty lobby, dragging my empty bucket, still dripping blood and condiment.
“We’ll come for you!” She said as the elevator doors slid shut.
I limped back into my apartment and awaited the inevitable. I hadn’t even had my tea. I contemplated climbing out the window. Then I remembered that this was “the new Beijing”. I was a legal resident of this building, with the paper to prove it. I looked in my little red Chinese dictionary for the words to explain my dishevelment. I wanted to claim epilepsy, but I couldn’t find the translation. Finally, I found two suitable phrases:
“Soy sauce bottle plummeted” and “I had a fit”
After a few moments, there was a knock on the door, and I opened it, and saw two of the Public Safety Officers standing in my hallway, a man and a woman, the hunchback, mercifully, had gone elsewhere.
I started jabbering
“How strange it must look. But really, very simple. A soy sauce bottle broke…”
I pointed to my swollen, enflamed foot with a bloody index finger, as if this might somehow clarify everything. While they showed no outward signs of sympathy, I could sense that my precarious mental state had registered.
“It doesn’t matter. We’re here to take the yearly census for the building.”
Said the male half of the duo, his thick Beijing twang made nigh-impenetrable by some sort of speech impediment.
I showed them my hukou, the household registration card that is invaluable to any Beijing dweller. While they copied down the particulars, they rattled off a series of questions. “How long have you lived here” and “What is the surname of your landlord?” and “How much rent are you paying?”
“Half a year” I answered, “Mrs. Chang. 2100 RMB a month.”
“Thank you for your cooperation.”
The pair then closed their clipboard and turned to leave. But I felt the need for closure
“Am I in any trouble?”
“You are in no violation of the law.” The woman replied. “Your landlady is. She has been cheating on her taxes, overcharging you while claiming her nephew lives here rent free.”
“Do you have any advice?” I asked.
“Avoid duck meat.” Said the man. “It inflames gout.”
As I closed the door, a wave of tranquility suddenly washed over me. The pulsating in my extremities abated. After years in China I had achieved a semblance of equality. The bureaucratic machine was no longer after me. It had held me squarely in its claws before putting me down to go after my rent-gouging landlady. In the eyes of the law, I was now just another citizen; a simpleton who allowed himself to be cheated, perhaps, but a law-abiding simpleton. Dazed and unwashed, I collapsed onto my bed, warm in the knowledge that nothing – not the cold, nor the gout, nor the cuts on my hands – could keep tomorrow from being a better day.
(Blood and Condiment originally Published in Hong Kong’s Dim Sum Literary Journal, 2004)