“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Excerpt from Zhu Wen's What is Love and What is Garbage

By Cindy M. Carter, published


Xiao Ding sat at the narrow, cigarette-scarred wooden table with his head cradled on one arm, wondering whether or not he ought to scream. But of course, he didn't; he only went through the motions, noiselessly opening and closing, opening and closing his mouth. In the dim light of the bar, the faces of the hostesses clustered behind him looked sickly, almost green. Xiao Ding found himself distracted by their Sichuanese-accented chatter, drawn into their conversation and flung out again, like some traveler stranded on a highway bound for Sichuan.

He stood up and headed for the exit. As he passed the bar, the hostesses fell silent. One of the girls swiveled around to stare at him, her big, heavily-lipsticked mouth parted as if to speak. Xiao Ding gazed back at her uncomprehendingly, and took another step toward the door. Unable to hold back any longer, the large-mouthed girl called after him: Hey, you haven't paid your bill yet! Without bothering to answer, Xiao Ding reached the door and pushed it open, ushering in a wave of noontime summer heat. Seen from the perennial darkness of the tiny bar, the city outside was dazzling, a blaze of light. There were a few pedestrian stragglers, tongues lolling out of their mouths, panting in the heat. Xiao Ding surveyed the scene for a moment before allowing his hand fall to his side, and the door to swing closed on its spring hinge. He returned to his original seat and lit up a cigarette.

A short while later, the large-mouthed girl approached and handed him his check with feigned politeness: Excuse me, sir, but if you wouldn’t mind settling your bill...Why should I? Xiao Ding asked, an edge of hysteria to his voice. The hostess seemed startled: What do you mean, why? I mean why do I have to pay first? Xiao Ding demanded belligerently. Afraid I'm going to make a run for it, is that it? Shocked by his rudeness, the hostess began to stammer. The longer she stammered, the more pronounced her Sichuanese accent became. Xiao Ding was, if anything, even more shocked by his own behavior; he bowed his head and fidgeted uncomfortably. The hostess hesitated a moment and began to walk away, but Xiao Ding called her back and promptly paid the amount indicated on the bill. The moment the hostess had the money in hand, her fear seemed to dissipate. She turned away with a snort of derision and flounced back to the bar.

After this, Xiao Ding had no desire to remain in the bar, but if he left right away it would seem even more humiliating, like he'd been driven away. At that moment, he was seized by an overwhelming urge: Man, did he ever have to take a shit. The call of nature was a timely one for which he couldn’t help but feel grateful. As Xiao Ding stood up to leave, he experienced a moment of dizziness, and the room went black. He waited until the sensation had passed, then proceeded to grope his way to the back of the bar. Man, was this place ever dark. He located the restroom door and went inside, stopping in shock when he realized it wasn't a restroom at all, but an outside stairwell piled with construction debris. Naturally, he experienced an initial pang of disappointment at having made an exit when he had so clearly intended to make an entrance, but the stairwell was so hot—and his need to defecate now so intense—that he soon forgot about everything else. Fuck, he thought, at times like these, you might as well die and get it over with. Assuming he didn't intend to follow through on this and keel over on the spot, however, he had little choice but to follow the arrows on the wall and hope they led to a toilet.

Skirting a heap of broken ceramic tiles, Xiao Ding climbed the stairs to the second floor and made his way to an unbelievably filthy restroom at the end of the hallway. He quickly chose the stall that looked the cleanest—although it was still squalid beyond compare—and squatted over the hole. The stall was so tiny that he could hardly squat without his head touching the graffiti and sputum-covered wooden door. Xiao Ding tossed his hair and tried to take a step back, but found his retreat blocked by a pile of blackened and congealed feces. Gingerly, he reached out a hand and pushed open the wooden door to give himself more space. Across the way, he glimpsed a row of four yellowing urinals. The two far right urinals had been taped over with rough brown construction paper, upon which someone had scrawled in pencil: "Out of Order". As the stall door began to swing back of its own accord, Xiao Ding pushed it open, only to have it close again. Finally, he used his left hand to prop open the door.

As Xiao Ding labored to take a shit in the unbearable heat, the position proved too exhausting. He withdrew his hand and allowed the door to swing back and rest against his forehead. By now, his shirt and trousers were soaked with sweat and clinging to his skin like a plaster. The task he had hoped to complete as quickly and painlessly as possible seemed to be taking ages. To make matters worse, the scar on his belly was starting to itch again. Two flies buzzed around his head, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about them. After a while, his annoyance was replaced by a strange sense of familiarity, a feeling bordering on affection. Fuck, he thought, how come I never noticed before how close humans are to flies? At that moment, the flies seemed like pretty little songbirds, tiny buzzing pets he had been nurturing for years without even knowing.

Just then, someone opened the restroom door. Xiao Ding heard footsteps followed by a loud splash, as the newcomer trod in the puddle of stagnant water at the entrance. Xiao Ding glanced down at his own feet and saw that his cloth shoes were half-soaked. He heard the man cursing and stamping his feet as he walked over to the urinals. The familiar clink of a belt being unbuckled. A very long silence. No sound of urination. Locked in a stalemate with his own bowels, Xiao Ding could only squat passively in his stall and try to guess what was happening over at the urinals. As the silence stretched on, he began to get nervous; god only knew what sordid business the man might be getting up to. He certainly hadn't left the restroom, because his presence was palpable. Xiao Ding was tempted to open the wooden stall door and take a peek, but it seemed inappropriate, somehow.

At that moment, he was startled to hear the stranger speak: Fuck, can you believe this weather? This heat is murder, know what I mean? Xiao Ding wondered if there might be a third party in the restroom, although he could swear he'd heard only one person enter. When no one answered, the man repeated himself: This heat is murder, you know? Know what I mean? Xiao Ding experienced a moment of confusion. He plugged his nose and lowered his head to peek beneath the partitions on either side. Both stalls were empty. He must be talking to me, Xiao Ding thought, and answered grudgingly: Yeah, yeah, sure. Sighing, the stranger continued: It’s gotta be torture trying to take a shit in here. Worse than a fucking prison, eh? Wiping the sweat from his brow, Xiao Ding kept his reply perfunctory: Yeah, worse than a prison. He could hardly believe it when the man, apparently hell-bent on continuing the interrogation, pressed on: So why are you taking a shit, then? At this point, Xiao Ding was on the verge of pulling up his pants and leaving, but for some reason he answered the man automatically: N-no, see, I just happened to be passing by... Unsatisfied with this rather lame answer, Xiao Ding felt obliged to expand: Had I known what a pit this place was, I’d have never stopped in here to take a shit. The man gave a derisive snort: Fuck, I wasn't asking why you came in here to shit, I was asking why you'd bother to take a shit at all. By now, Xiao Ding's forehead was wet with perspiration. He wiped the sweat from his brow and flung it to the ground. His fingers grazed the floor and came away dripping with some unidentifiable goo. Recoiling in disgust, he reached out automatically for the toilet paper.

In that instant, Xiao Ding experienced two terrible realizations: (1) There was no toilet paper in the stall and (2) He had neglected to bring any of his own. Perspiring profusely and starting to panic, Xiao Ding raised himself on his haunches and patted his trouser pockets. But what was he hoping to find there? His trousers didn't even have pockets. So uh, why are you taking a shit? The man calmly repeated his question. Although Xiao Ding was now seething with fury, some small corner of his mind registered the fact that he might have to ask this rude stranger for a favor, and soon. He composed his response carefully. Um, what's that? he asked, trying to mask his annoyance, how do you mean? The stranger snorted again: Bet you forgot to bring toilet paper, didn't you? It's like they say: The wise man thinks of everything, but even a sage slips up now and then. Wow, how'd you know I forgot toilet paper? Xiao Ding answered. It's so weird that you knew. Just as he was about to push open the stall door and ask the man for a scrap of toilet paper, he felt his bowels begin to move. The urge to shit was overwhelming. Lowering his head and gritting his teeth, he tried desperately to hold back the flood. At the same time, he began mentally composing his plea for help. Ha, I knew it, I just knew it! the man exclaimed smugly. Xiao Ding heard several sharp staccato bursts of urine, followed by a long, satisfied groan. One of the buzzing flies alighted on his kneecap and sat there, as if pondering the same question as Xiao Ding. Just as Xiao Ding was about to ask the stranger for some toilet paper, the man beat him to the punch: Fuck, I'd like to see how you get out of here! Before Xiao Ding could react, the stranger bolted for the restroom door. Judging by the clatter, he’d nearly tripped over himself in his haste to make an exit. When the noise had subsided, a disheartened Xiao Ding raised a fist and pushed open the wooden stall door. The row of urinals across from him was unchanged, the restroom as seedy as ever, but the place was deserted.

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