By Nicholas Braman
I check, then double check, rapidly patting my pockets one after the other. “Wallet, keys, phone, change.” all there. I can already feel the humidity closing around me as I exit my inner room. I stand at the door, looking around one more time. My footsteps echo as I trot down the stairwell. Sometimes I’m off dreaming in another world, other times planning my day, but the routine is automatic. At the bottom of the stairs I unlock my bike, quickly but with care so as not to soil my clothes. As I struggle to open the lock on the thick metal door, beads of sweat are already stinging my eyes. It’s awkward; the kickstand is on the left, but I like to mount from the right. So, I either put up the kickstand with my foot and hold on to the saddle as I swing myself round the back tire, or I lean over the frame and pull the stand upwards.
As I back the shiny new highly steal able bicycle down the steps, the gears make a clicking sound, so I lift the back wheel up. I mount the bike and feel better as a light breeze starts to cool me down. Dodging old women in pajamas, dogs, and school children, I pedal towards the gate of my compound. There are young professionals dressed up for a busy day, mothers with toddlers and retirees out for exercise. Many stop to buy fried bread, dumplings, or boiled eggs. An assortment of electric scooters, motorbikes, and rusty bicycles line the drive waiting to whisk away passengers. I stop to tell my housekeeper what I want her to do that day and then I turn on to the road, picking up speed. A loud horn blares from just behind me, I am used to it however and barely notice as I glance up to see whether I will make the light.
Sometimes my spirits soar as I ring the bell and swerve around pedestrians, other times I dread the coming day, and just want to fall back into sweet slumber. Decisions, decisions: “In the bike lane, or with the cars? To pass or not to pass? Do I stay in a high gear and pedal rapidly, or use my muscles to grind my way along the street?” A girl in a short skirt catches my eye. If I would look into her eyes, I would see her looking back at me, but my eyes never make it that high. The sun is rising behind me, beating down on my back. I pedal harder, rushing to get to the cool of the subway.
Pulling into the parking area of the station I look for a space near the entrance, but with enough space I won’t have a hard time getting my bike out from between the others when I return. The girl in the short skirt passes me as I fumble in my pocket for change, and this time our eyes meet. Unfortunately, sweat is pouring down my face and I have to quickly shut my eyes to avoid the salty irritation. The stale smell of the dimly lit underground assaults me as I race down the stairs. Barely catching myself on the slick tiled floor I squint up at the clock. I continue, rushing towards the turnstile, willing the people in front of me to go faster. Then I reach the escalator. A few moments of peace as the machine labors to pull us up back into the light. On the way I peruse the myriad of faces descending the stairs. “How lucky,” I think, “to have already reached their destination.” On the platform, I step on someone’s heel, then dart around them and angle myself in a good position to be among the first through the doors.
Again, we wait, more and more people crowd around me, eating, reading papers, shouting into mobiles. “This is the light rail’s first station, destination, JiangWan Town.” comes over the loudspeakers. People look up, tense, knowing the train is now rolling, no, sliding in. I peer at the driver, who looks too young by half to be such a position of responsibility. A half step forward, another, a shoulder just … there, placed just in front of someone will guarantee you get a seat. The cars stop, no movement, bodies coiled for action, the slight pause before the doors slide open. Then a mad rush, a surge of movement, people flooding into the cars from each portal. I’m sure the other’s thoughts mirror my own, “Left or Right? Near or far side? Where will I have the best chance of finding a seat?” Those that get a seat immediately return to their papers, not willing to meet the eyes of the pregnant woman they just pushed out of their way. The younger ones stand leaning against a wall, or door, and try to act as if they didn’t really want a seat anyway. The older ones, with more experience and less shame, push their way to the front, their narrowed eyes looking disapprovingly toward the faces of those sitting. I don’t know if those sitting can feel the eyes boring into them but they must notice the food coming out of the stander’s mouths, bouncing off their rounded stomach and sliding down the crisp pages of this morning’s paper.
The whine of the electric motor rises to a high pitch as the cars creep out of the station. Women unfold fans and men pull out handkerchiefs, to wipe the sweat off of their brows. A child sits across from me. He turns around, knees on the seat, pointing out the passing interests. To my right a fat man, with his tie much too short, coughs and I scootch to my left, using it as an excuse to get closer to the repressed bookworm type to my left. Hair up, pulled tight in a pony tail, glasses, no makeup, I’m sure, even if she doesn’t know it, someone could let out her wild side.
As we pull into the next station, more people crowd on, jostling for position. The doors beep three times and slide shut before we continue on our way. I continue to glance around, appearing to look at the people who most wouldn’t really prefer to look at, stealing glances out of the corner out of my eye at the ones most everybody would. Further down the car I notice a man leaning over a stranger’s shoulder to read the newspaper. My mind wanders and the stations steadily go by. I look out the window and am grateful I am here instead of stuck on the elevated highway packed with cars.
A few more stations down the line and as many people start to get off as are getting on. I enjoy the ever-amusing (as long as you are just watching) spectacle of boarding passengers standing directly in front of the doors as piles of people try to exit. One stop before mine, an old lady comes on and manages to push her way in front of me. I stand to let her sit, but a young man blabbering away on his phone sits down before she has a chance. She smiles ruefully at me before I start to battle my way towards the doors. The faint scent of vanilla reaches my nostrils and only now do I realize I had made the wrong choice of where to sit back at my station. The girl with the skirt is sitting behind the bulk of what appears to be an overgrown Rip Van Winkle, my “charming” smile turns to a grimace as I notice her boyfriend has joined her on her other side.
First off the car, I turn sideways so I don’t have to wait for the doors to fully open. A man is standing directly in front of me. I prepare to shoulder him out of my way, already longing for the air-conditioning I just left. But he sees the look in my eyes and backs out of the way, stepping on a heeled foot, making the owner yelp. There’s no down escalator here so I rush down the stairs, my hand held out, ready to grab the railing. As I go through the turnstiles, I see a sea of people in front of me weaving their way through an onslaught of motorcycles and bikes. Then, suddenly, I too am swept into the rush, as I fight my way to the other side of the road.
Once there I pause, my eyes finally finding a motorcycle driver I know. He nods and I put my left foot on the foot bar and swing my other leg up and over, my damp sweaty jeans constricting my legs. He hands me a helmet and yells at an old woman selling apples to get out of the way. Holding the safety device in my hands I feel better, as the wind rushes by me and the sound of the engine drowns out everything but the car horns. As we get close to a red light, he weaves his way between the waiting cars and I have to move my head back and forth to avoid the side mirrors sticking out in front of us like horizontal speed bumps. I ask him about the weather and he tells me it’s already 30 degrees but it might rain tonight. Then there is a break in the traffic, and off we go, barely missing the cop in the center of the intersection.
I close my eyes and let the smell of exhaust and the sensation of the sticky air blowing by me fill my senses. I try to visualize where we are and picture what the scene looks like in my mind. I open my eyes, to see if I’m correct, and scarcely have enough time to close them again as we slam on our brakes to avoid an old man pulling a cart full of cardboard. Arriving at the gate, I hop off and hand him the helmet. My hand gets stuck in my back pocket as it always does, and I have enough time ask him if he is free to pick me up this afternoon. He replies in the negative as I hand him a crumpled bill, “No problem,” I say, “maybe next time.” Then, as I turn and enter the grounds, (ending sentence any suggestions?)
Just a draft, critiques are welcome!
My site is avalible in China again, so I will start to write more.