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A collaboration over too much coffee.
coffee and pen

25 December, 2006

Shanghai Nights


Cliff Martinez - First Sleep

(First posted here. If possible, please listen to the song above while reading the story below.)

A phone rang in the background. People trying to reach others on the edge. I observed her from the other side of the room. Her polite smile. Her naughty laugh. The way she drank a shot, so elegant and sexy. It was raining outside. The whispers of so many strangers mingled with the drumming of the raindrops on the roof. I wandered through the crowd to get a better look at her. The seat next to her was empty. She turned and glanced at me with a half smile around her lips. I slid my shot across and ordered a fresh one. We drank.

“Can you resist an impulse?”

“I don’t know. It depends.”

“On what?”

“On what I’ll gain out of the impulse. Will it give instant gratification or do I need to persevere? What about you?”

“Oh yes! I always give in to my every impulse. You know that is why I’m talking to you, based on such an impulse.”

We went out to sit on the porch and watch the rain. In the distance, landing lights flashed. Planes took off and landed at regular intervals. The warning lights on the airport radar blinked cryptic messages. There was that special smell of wet earth.

She went in to get some food. It was a Chinese dinner. She came back with two bowls filled with lightly spiced egg noodles and two pairs of metal chopsticks.

“I do not know how to eat with chopsticks.”

“Neither do I but I like the way chopsticks feel in my hands, especially these metal ones. Let's keep them as souvenirs.”

She smiled and started picking up noodles with her fingers. She was quite good at it. It was not messy at all. I tried to emulate her as best as I could.

“You know, I lived in Shanghai with my parents when I was a child. It was a different city back then. No high rises. No glitz. No sleek highways. I remember this old fisherman in the fish market from whom we always bought our fish. He taught me how to eat noodles without chopsticks. It was funny how I ended up talking to him. He spoke very good English...”

She trailed off into a long silence, reminiscing perhaps of the old Shanghai. She finished the noodles and wiped her hands and lips on a napkin. I followed suit after about a minute.

“...I never did ask him where he learnt to speak English like that. He liked Indians a lot. Apparently, he had fought with the Indian soldiers against the Japanese in the Battle of Imphal. You know, I never thought about this before, perhaps that was where he learnt his English.”

She suddenly reached out and held my hand, squeezing it gently. She withdrew her hand slowly.

The rain had slowed down to a drizzle in the meantime. The wet grass glistened under the lights. It had been a warm day but the rain and the breeze had cooled the night. She got up and looked at me.

“Let us take a walk through the garden.”

“But it is still raining. I get irritated getting wet in a drizzle.”

“Come on, don’t fight your impulse. I know you want to. I can see it on your face.”

She was right. I did want to walk with her through the light rain and feel the cool breeze brush against my skin.

“You know, there is a fragment of a poem that I really like. Nights such as this always bring it to mind.”

“What fragment is it?”
“"Hope" is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –”
“That is beautiful. Who is it by?”

“Emily Dickinson. She is one of my favorite poets.”

We walked to the edge of the garden. The rain was only a pleasant short term memory by then. The land dropped below us into a small open area densely covered by shrubs. To the left, below us, was a small lake, half lit by the lights from the houses behind us. On the far right, some distance away, was the airport.

There was a small bench where the garden ended. We sat close to each other. Her hand slipped into mine. She stared at the rippling waters of the lake while I looked at the landing lights turn on and off at irregular intervals. A song could be heard faintly from one of the houses behind us. We spent the rest of the night, huddled together in the cool night, talking of Shanghai nights in the past, good poetry and ambient music, until the first rays of dawn gently kissed our brows.

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