Three Roads, Shanghai, October 2007

by Katherine Lien Chariott

1. Zhaojiabang Lu

On this road, on every road, the cars stream by forever. A dozen people wait to cross the street, but we will never cross it. We are left to look at ourselves reflected in store windows; to look at each other (boldly, without shame). Next to me is a beautiful teenage girl, with perfect soft lips and china-doll bangs, soft pale skin (amazing). But then she steps closer and I see: a harelip, a port-wine stain. Her eager expression is too much for me, so I look away, into the passing cars—every driver is bored, every passenger is tired. When I look back, the girl is gone, the street is empty, half an hour passed in an instant.

2. Shanxi Nan Lu

The man working the spit is a foreigner, too, but an Arab. We speak to each other in broken Chinese: Bread. One. Not two. Lamb, three. Right, spicy. He puts the skewers on the grill, and the red chunks start to go brown. I move away from him, so I can look into the French restaurant across the street. The customers sitting inside are fat and prosperous; self-satisfied. Okay, the man says, so I give him a crumpled ten. He points at the sign above the oven angrily. I can't read it, but I give him two coins anyway. While I eat, I watch the day-laborers sitting on the sidewalk with signs advertising their skills. They are perfectly still, not nearly as real to me as the fat that drips onto my hands and onto my face.

3. Damuchau Lu

Through the window, I watch the women. There are an even half dozen of them, reclining on couches and sitting on stools; one squats on the floor, watching TV and eating a bowl of noodles. All of them look tired and bored. They wear cheap filmy nightgowns and short lace negligees, too much makeup, too much flesh, all soft and pale. They offer up their bodies carelessly, don't even bother to look out at the street: I can't imagine wanting them; I can't imagine refusing them, but a lack of imagination has always been my problem. Finally, I turn away and walk down the sidewalk, stop ten yards down at another window, to look at the women waiting there.

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Katherine Lien Chariott has published short fiction in magazines including Columbia, Hunger Mountain, and Sonora Review. She received an MFA from Cornell University, and a PhD from UNLV, where she was a Schaeffer Fellow in fiction. She lives in Shanghai. "Three Roads, Shanghai, October 2007" is her first online publication.