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Friday, October 30, 2009
Midnight Meanderings – a fragment

Leaving the jazz club, I realize there’s something different about tonight. There is a melancholy that cramps my insides. More than your usual, everyday melancholy. So I do exactly what my eighth grade Physical Education teacher would have told me do in the event of a cramp: "Walk it off, Chan, walk it off." (Yes, Ms. Green. Yes, ma’am. By the way, ma’am, are you gay? I’ve always wondered that.) Never mind. I’m gonna go walk it off now.

Rejecting the line of cabs in front of me, I head southwest with the vague idea that home is in that general direction. I may have lived here for four years, but I remain geographically stunted and directionally challenged. I take a left turn and find myself on a completely deserted street. The air is musky with the almost-rotting leaves of autumn and the lamplight casts a sienna filter over everything. Intricate lamps under the eaves and along the walls give just enough light for me to appreciate the details of the building facades and the quaint architecture of Shanghai’s French Concession. I stop to catch a photo of a huge stack of construction bamboo abandoned on the sidewalk across the street, elegant in its own right in the amber light. This city of mine is full of contradictions. For decades, the host of speckled plane trees lining these streets have solemnly witnessed them all
It is unbelievably quiet. Walking in the thick of this deep silence I am as insignificant as the dead leaf fluttering beside me. Only the trees are aware of my coming and going. My thoughts turn inward and I consider the melancholy that had coaxed me into this adventure to begin with. It’s strange. I love the life I have now. There’s nothing more that I want. Save the relocation of my dear friends around the world to Shanghai, that is. But I’m a reasonable girl. I’m thankful for all that life has given me. So what’s with the melancholy?

I’ve been spending a lot of time alone in jazz clubs. It’s a bit weird, I know. But, first of all, I am weird, and second of all, I’ve fallen in love with this minx and nightly it lures me into its various lairs, taunting me to listen, to learn, to live within the music. I love it for its raw energy, its spirit of change, its intellect. Yet I confess that I often feel like a complete loser as I hang out in the dark, watching, photographing, writing, keeping my ears open, open, open as I take in whatever the minx is offering onstage that night. Listening to music is not the most social event. For one, it kind of requires not talking. It also requires convincing your friends that jazz is awesome. Even if they do agree, no one in their right mind is going to accompany you on your rounds every single week. So more often than not I fly solo. Which is cool for the most part.

Except, I’m a puppy dog. Anyone who knows me, knows that well. Sometimes even a regular bitch. But past the snapping jaws there’s the fundamental need to be liked. Lately, with my frequenting of music venues and shameless self-introductions to musicians, my puppy-dog insecurities have been catching up with me. To me, with their dedication to their art and their love of music, these musicians are kindred spirits of sorts. To them, I’m some random chick who keeps turning up. Not all of them, certainly. There are those who walk past, pretending not to see me, and there are those who seem to sincerely want to be acquainted. Perhaps it’s because I’m new to living in my art, that I think everyone else who’s doing the same is going to want to chase kittens together in the neighbor’s backyard. But I forget that they are all cats themselves. Ah well. This is the life you chose, as my brother-in-law would say.

I pass the stately night guards in front of the Dutch consulate, minding their post with the shared silence of the street, and think of the shared silence of humans in general. Beneath the layers of friends and lovers, spouses and family, every single one of us are alone. As insignificant as the dead leaf fluttering beside me. Doh. I said that already, didn’t I? Now that I am no longer in the corporate world, no longer in a nine-to-five post, I am no longer surrounded by humans by default. I’ve grown accustomed to being in my own head for most of the day, writing, writing, forever writing. Living inside your head is wonderful, but it can also be daunting. Troubling, sometimes, especially when you’re attempting to mine the depths and transform cold, hard ore into gold. Probably why I have such a hankering to get out of the house after office hours.

Another corner later and the city is rustling around me. I’m in a more commercial part of town now. There’s the lady in red, red cartoon-patterned pajamas that is, stopping by the ATM. There’s the crowd around the late-night skewers guy grilling all sorts of yummy goodness atop his mound of glowing coals. There’s the faint sound of someone practicing violin at midnight. There’s a lone window draped in red and lit from within, full of secrets. There’s a barber shop glowing pink, its furtive treasures lounging half-clothed beyond the pane, waiting for the right man to pass. ‘Leg shops,’ as my husband calls them. And where is this husband of yours, you may wonder? On a plane, en route from Beijing, and landing any second now. No matter where he is or where I am, he is always the warm ember presiding in the core of my soul.

There’s a rush of water beneath the manhole to my right and suddenly I hear it. Piano music, floating in the street and buzzing along the telephone lines draped precariously above my head. I look up to find the source. And there, above a dilapidated storefront, I see a small yellow square of light, shrouded by a dingy, makeshift curtain. I cross the street to stand beneath this unlikely font. The music is beautiful. A lilting piano ballad streaming into the night, the perfect score to my dead and fluttering leaf. It touches me that some anonymous soul above is feeling the exact same way that I am feeling in this moment. I walk away reluctantly after a minute or two. I want to make sure that I’m home by the time my husband arrives at the door, exhausted from his trip, worn out from being my constant ember.

Home is just a park’s length away now. I cross the large boulevard and my heart lightens as I pass the very serviced apartment that I stayed in four years ago when I was deciding whether or not to move to Shanghai, wondering what this fickle, fabulous city had in store. I had no idea how full and fulfilling my life here would be. Of course I didn’t. My husband, my Duraflame source, was still a couple months away from entering my life then.

My heart quickens as I enter the last dark alley before home, even though rationally I know that there is no random Jack lurking in the shadows ready to jump out and steal my iPhone. It is crazy how safe Shanghai feels. I scratch at the newly formed welts from the opportunistic mosquitoes I’ve met along the way, those last irritating troops perservering until the season's end. My war wounds from tonight’s adventure. Forty-five minutes after leaving the club, the cramp has gone gently into that good night. Ms. Green was right after all. Walk it off, Chan. Walk it off.



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