Shanghai Life and Death(103)

I thanked her for preparing my residence. She said, “Things are going to be much better since Premier Zhou has been in charge, and many people have been released from the guardhouse.”

“Many people were put in the detention center?” I asked her.

“Yes heh! Almost all the senior staff of foreign companies were imprisoned. I know of the Chinese manager of HSBC in Hong Kong, and my neighbor’s relative, the general manager of Standard Chartered Bank, both of whom are being held in the First Detention Center. One of them was released at the end of last year, and the other is said to be getting out soon. One of them had a wife who died when the Red Guards raided her home. That poor woman, given to fright, jumped down from the window of their sixth floor apartment.”

I was silently reflecting on everything she had said when she said, “The most important thing is that you have to go to the hospital first. Most doctors who see outpatients these days are untrained impostors, and you need to find an experienced doctor. The Public Security Bureau says you have uterine cancer.”

“I don’t believe I have cancer,” I said, “I’ve been bleeding out for a long time, for years, and if it really is cancer, I should be feeling pain by now.”

“That’s great, and I hope it’s not cancer, too. But you still desperately need to get checked out by an experienced doctor.”

“Is that okay? I don’t know how that old doctor is doing now, he is Dr. Guo 㻱 of Guangci Hospital attached to the Second Medical College.”

“I’m afraid that Dr. Guo is very sick, he suffered a lot during the Cultural Revolution. Think of a way to find another doctor for you. May have to go through the ‘back door’.”

“The back door?” I asked.

“This is a new way of doing things nowadays. The ‘back door’ means to hire a good doctor through a friend or acquaintance, or to get something we desperately need but can’t easily buy.” She explained to me, “Of course doing things through the ‘back door’ comes at a higher price because we have to give gifts instead of money to those who do things for us. But for the most part, it’s the only way to get things done these days.”

“Is that illegal?” I asked. I remembered that the Communist Party had always hated this kind of behavior, and that people were afraid to do it. Before the Cultural Revolution, no one did this kind of thing in private, except for those who enjoyed privileges.

“All the laws and regulations are now considered a ‘capitalist’ set, and no one cares about what is legal or illegal anymore. I think as long as a person is arrested, he is breaking the law, and if he is not arrested, he is legal. The reason why people call this behavior ‘backdoor’ is to avoid people’s eyes and ears, so everyone is doing it.”

Auntie started dinner. I went to the bathroom to wash my hands. For the first time in six and a half years, I looked in the mirror. When I saw myself in the mirror, I was really surprised to see my pale face with deep sunken cheeks and locks of dried gray hair on my head. Only one pair of eyes but looked particularly bright, because I need to be on guard against the outside world at all times. This face is now very different from the one I used to have. After all, six and a half years is not a short period of time, I will always age a little. I looked at myself in the mirror again, hoping that soon my face would be rosy and plump again, and my eyes would be able to see the world with a serene, rather than frightened, look.

Xi and her mother were already sitting at the table, and my aunt had prepared a good meal: there was chicken soup, sliced meat and fried vegetable hearts, and soft rice, which I hadn’t seen in a long time. But I had no appetite at all because my gums hurt so much that I couldn’t chew, and I only drank the chicken soup and swallowed a few bites of rice.

“I want to see the dentist first, and then have a gynecological examination.” I said.

“I’ll refer you to my cousin. She’s a dentist at the Sixth People’s Hospital.” Xi suggested.

“You should contact her first and do some preparation.” Xi’s mother reminded her.

“I’ll go see her in the morning and I’ll get back to you.” Xi said to me.

After Xi and her mother left, I helped my aunt put away the dishes and walked down the narrow back escalator and put them in the kitchen. Then I went back to my aunt’s small room to look around. There was only a small bed with her clothes piled on it, but there was no other furniture. There were no curtains on the window. It seemed that Xi had neither the money nor the furniture to furnish the two rooms. I moved a chair from my room and put it next to my aunt’s bed.

I went downstairs to ask my aunt to boil some bath water for me. I had already found a streak of yellow dirt accumulating in the bathtub, but no scrubbing utensils. Also, the nights were still a little chilly for the season, and I couldn’t raise the temperature in the bathroom.

Taking a tub bath in Shanghai is also very tiring, as it requires a lot of hot water. Auntie had to boil several pots of water to fill the hot water bottle, and then boil a large pot of water. While I was waiting for the bath water, I found that Xi had put some letter envelopes in the desk drawer for me. I wrote a note to Man-ping’s friend and old classmate Kong – the actor from the studio. I think he is the only one who knows the details of Man Ping’s death. I wanted him to come and see me immediately. Auntie came staggering up the back escalator with a big heavy pot of water, and I immediately took the enamel basin I had brought back from the guardhouse and asked her to put the pot in the basin so that the hot water would not splash her hands, and then we both carried the basin into the bathroom.

No more guards came to rush me, so I could wash very thoroughly. I used up a large pot of water and six hot water bottles of water. When I got out of the bathroom, I stood on the balcony and looked out at the road under the faint street lights to view my surroundings.

The house assigned to me was one of many houses in an alley, the last in a row of dwellings. The design of all the houses here is the same, but they all need to be painted. In front of me was a row of identical houses, separated by a six-foot-wide concrete path from the small garden at my front door. At one end of the balcony, I could see my next-door neighbor’s garden, which had a few bamboo poles propped up with clothes drying on them. This was once middle-class Shanghai housing, but since 1949, when the city’s population more than doubled, not many homes were built. This is because the policy from above was to develop the mainland rather than the coastal areas. So now a house is usually shared by several families, with everyone sharing the kitchen, bathroom and hallway. Since I was born, I have never lived in such a house, so I look forward to the day when I can take back my own residence.

Although the road was sparse and silent, I don’t think it was too late at night, but I closed the door to my room and lay down on my clean bed because I couldn’t support my strength and energy. The day seemed especially long, but I could not sleep, as if something heavy was pressing on my chest. When Xi and her mother were there, I tried to restrain myself. Now that there were no more guards watching me, and my aunt had long since gone to sleep, it was the first time in several years that I was truly free, and all the grief I had buried in my heart had only then turned into tears.