When Xu bites me, when she has me in her teeth, naked and bad on top of me, everything is good. It’s not a human thing but it happened anyway, like a typhoon or an earthquake. It started one November afternoon up against the window of her apartment in Wujiaochang, with the bluish glare of the shopping malls in our faces, and it continued in less private spaces. Former textile factories and slaughterhouses from the thirties, places full of logic and abandon, algid iron architecture, autumn light adrift over derelict sheet metal. I’d been in Shanghai just over a month but already I knew it intimately. Nanjing Road running through the middle like a spine, the dusty suburbs along the Huangpu River, the enormous parks with fluttering flags and peonies as fat and red as newborn babies’ heads. The glittering skyscrapers of the Bund and the dry wind blowing west and traversing everything, making it all tremble, the glass and steel and opulent hedges, the deserted industrial parks, the rows of plane trees in the western districts. I’d been there a month and already it felt like home, the way all things that simultaneously suffocate and protect do.
I’ve never asked Xu if she’s done it with anyone else. I’ve never asked her if I’m the first. But at night when I go with her and her skinny peroxide-blonde friends to the Poxx I find myself apprehensively scanning their wrists, their skin, their slender ankles, in fear of finding marks just like mine. Sometimes a rosy scratch glitters on a finger or the flared edge of a smile. But that’s not enough proof; it’s nothing. It’s hard to see skin well under strobe lights.
I always wind up drinking a little too much imported sake and going home alone, my head spinning. The elegant streets of the French Concession at night amplify my insecurities. Boutiques, bistros, brasseries, backlit displays of plump croissants filled with cream or phospho- rescent green matcha. It used to be one big swamp. In the forties the French turned it into a muggy dollhouse full of whores. French law and French lust reigned. Slim bargain bodies dewy with luxe eau de toilette. The bordeaux in crystal glasses a far cry from the chipped cups in working-class neighborhoods, the aseptic perfumeries far from the piss-drenched alleyways and stone drainage canals where children defecated hand in hand. Now it’s a chic skeleton of a bygone era. Western businessmen dine on avocado salad and prosecco at café tables alfresco, under rows of illuminated plane trees, feeling special because they live in China, feeling safe because they’ll never cross the French border and will never truly be in China.