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CHINA - Shanghai Nights, June 2004

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A woman in a bar Rock and Roll Romance

That bar was painfully tacky and blazing with yellow lights that shone brightly on every sleazy detail. Sitting at the bar, I was as blank and luminous as the full moon. It was the first time I'd ever sat at a bar, and I felt a little nervous. Every now and then I'd turn and glance this way or that, making it look as if I were waiting for someone. I didn't even know that I was in a bar. I had only just arrived in this small city in the South. It was 1989, and in Shanghai, where I'd come from, there still weren't any bars, just a handful of small, unofficial street-side cafés. Maybe those tiny restaurants had bars, but I'd never set foot inside one.

Outside, it was raining hard, but I don't remember what music was playing in the bar. And I don't remember when I first caught sight of him, a tall boy swaying back and forth and smiling at nothing in particular. He was wearing an oversize white T-shirt and printed corduroy pants. The pants were wide enough to be a skirt, but they really were pants. He was there in the bar, all alone, rocking from side to side, with a whiskey glass in his left hand and his right hand dancing in the air. I watched his legs as, step by step, he moved toward me. His light blue sneakers had very thin soles, and it looked as if he was tripping over his own feet. His hair was long and straight and glossy, the tips brushing his upper back, and his face was very pale. I couldn't make out his features, but I was certain that he was smiling, even if I couldn't tell whether or not he was looking at me too.

I ate my ice cream. Before long, I became aware that a man's hand holding a drink had appeared at my right side. It was a large hand with sturdy fingertips, and I knew at a glance that he chewed his nails. This was something we had in common.

A curtain of hair filled my field of vision, and I smelled the faint, delicate scent of his hair. I looked up.

And saw the face of an angel.

He smiled strangely, and the naked innocence in his eyes filled me with confusion. For the rest of the evening I wasn't able to look away from that face, the face he wore then. And maybe it's my belief in that face that has kept me alive until now, because I believe in that face. It's my destiny.

He started chattering on and on about different kinds of ice cream. He said he also liked chocolate, and that his mother had told him that ill-fated children liked to eat sweets. He had a foreboding that because he liked sweets, he was going to be fat at thirty and bald at forty.

He asked me what I was doing in this town, and I said, Isn't everyone here to make money? I didn't graduate from high school, so I couldn't find a job in Shanghai. What else was left except to come here? He said, But you're so young; aren't your parents worried about you? My dad's pretty unusual, I said. He treats me like an adult. He wants to change his life and make a pile of money himself, so he encouraged me when I said I wanted to go off and earn some money. He asked me, Do you like money? I said, One time my dad helped a relative from overseas change some money on the black market. He thought that he could make a little commission for himself that way, but instead somebody snatched the cash from him, and he tried to chase the person down, but he couldn't catch him, and he ended up with a sprained foot. My dad told me never ever to tell anyone about this, because he'd slipped out during working hours to change the money, and that wouldn't look good to people. It makes me sad, what happened to him. I don't know whether I really like money or not. My dad's an intellectual; he's weak. I'll have to start now if I'm going to make any kind of money.

I had the feeling that this guy, who called himself Saining, was kind of interested in me. His clothing made him stand out, and each of the colors in his rainbow-hued pants made me feel happy. From his rambling monologue I learned that he played guitar, that playing guitar was all he wanted to do, and that he was looking for one or maybe a whole bunch of bars with stages.

Awestruck, I asked, Where in China are there places like that?

He said he didn't know yet, but he was definitely going to find out.

These words emboldened me—to me a bar with a stage represented the road to freedom. I looked at him, adoring his black eyes, innocent, heartbreakingly innocent eyes, large and liquid. Hey, I said, you know what? I'm a singer, and I'm not bad!

And he answered, Do you want to come over to my place?

This was the first time a man had propositioned me, and heaven knows why I agreed on the spot. My expectations were vague and poetic, and dark undercurrents overtook my fantasy.

He said, I like girls from broken homes who are crazy about chocolate and who love the rain. I've been waiting for a girl like that for a long time.

I said, My God! A chocoholic who loves rainy days—that's me!

On the Edge
• Rock and Roll Romance
Escape to the Open City
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Excerpts from CANDY by Mian Mian. Copyright © 2003 by Shen Wang; Translation Copyright © 2003 by Andrea Lingenfelter. By permission of Little, Brown and Company Inc. All rights reserved. To purchase copies of this book, please call 1.800.759.0190.