I often sit and watch people go about their lives from the comfort of a park bench in DaShiZi, the large square near one of the central intersections of this strange city I’ve found myself in. I go at night, when there are fewer people around, which means that only thousands of people pass me every hour instead of hundreds of thousands. I watch as taxis try to make illegal U-turns and almost always miss, blocking traffic while they have to back up so as to avoid hopping onto a curb. I watch drunk people stumble through the park on their way home, or to another bar, from one of the night clubs or KTVs that are so famous on the far side of the square.
I’ve been to those bars and nightclubs countless times myself. They’re good for a laugh or a night out with friends. Occasionally I’ll hear the sounds of people fucking in the bushes nearby. Apparently they just couldn’t wait to get home or to one of the city’s many ‘love hotels’ that cater to couples like these. There’s a 24 hour McDonald’s on the other side of the street, and there’s almost always a homeless person or two asleep inside. The thunderstorms and torrents of rain that this city is prone to being a victim of in the summer makes McDick’s a great haven for the unwashed and unhoused- they don’t have to worry about sleeping on a sidewalk in a downpour. The other benefit it provides is that it has central air, a free gift to the many customers that have had to walk through the sweltering heat and humidity that come with a perpetual state of near-rain in the summer.
Just down the street from this bastion of western culture is a popular hotel for weddings and large parties. There’s a man that hands out cards with pictures of beautiful, scantily-clad Asian women advertising his services as a whoremongerer. He loves to harass passersby and the drunken male participants of whatever large party has just finished at 1 am. One assumes he does pretty well with this specific group of clients.
Back in the square at any given point in the night you can find drunken youths asleep on park benches, someone retching near a public bathroom (though whether as a result of having had too much to drink or just the smell of the public washroom one can never quite be certain) and groups of inebriated wanderers shouting incoherently at each other.
This was the scene of a random Tuesday in June when the body fell from the sky as I walked to the corner market to buy some tea.
Now, it wasn’t just any tea, but an iced lemon red tea that my girlfriend had turned me on to. It had just just the right mix of lemon and sugar to make it delicious but not too sweet, though the label was horrid with pictures of Korean pop stars. I had started drinking perhaps 4 of these each day. I was addicted.
Anyway, it landed next to me with a wet thud that I’ll never quite be able describe, but never able to forget, either. There was a crunching sound of all of the bones breaking, but it was drowned out almost entirely by this strange slurping sound, like a boot being sucked out of a mud puddle on a spring morning. I hardly noticed that I was in the splash zone, such was my shock of seeing something land just mere inches away from me. I was obviously startled and then when my brain was finally able to make all of the necessary calculations and realize what had just happened, I quite uncontrollably let out a scared laugh, then a howl, and then a “JESUS FUCKING CHRIST”.
A crowd had began to form around the scene. The excited rambling in Chinese was almost completely incoherent to me. I could pick out a few words and phrases, such as “what just happened?” or “that’s a foreigner! It almost hit a foreigner!” <<As an aside, the Chinese words for it and he/she are the same in the spoken language. I translate it now as ‘it’ because the body was so disfigured from impact that it couldn’t be certain from a glance if it was a male or female, and the dress was so androginous we couldn’t tell from speculation.>>
People in this town are no strangers to bodies dropping from the skies. It is the most often used method of suicide in this part of the world. I chalk it up to having such strict gun control laws. In the States we would just choke on the barrel of a gun. Here, where that isn’t an option, the people have to resort to more drastic measures like taking a casual stroll off of a rooftop or stepping off of a curb in front of an oncoming bus.
What amazes me most, in retrospect, was the amount of people that tried to stop me and inquire as to the state of my well-being as I wandered off toward the store again. There was a pile of goo that had until very recently, been a living and breathing person, just a few meters away. But it seemed that most people realized with an almost instant finality that this person was no longer a person, but a pile of flesh and bone that could never again do those things that people do. I, on the other hand, was still quite alive. The adrenaline dump that my brain had given me as a result of being so supremely startled, first from the sudden appearance of a falling thing and second, from the realization that this jumper had nearly added me to the list of fatalities for the evening police report, was keeping me extremely aware of the fact that I was still alive. Every sense was on fire.
I recall thinking that these people were like cats.
They realized this person was dead and there was no more hope for them, and that I was alive, and much more interesting. I’ve heard it said before that a dog will lay with the remains of its human owner for weeks after the passing of the human while cats will immediately begin to feast on them as a means of nourishment in an otherwise cold and indifferent world bent on killing us all. I’ve often admired the dog’s loyalty, but found it misguided as the cats know better how to go on living. These people were all cats, in my mind. What’s dead is dead, and now this thing in front of them, alive and hyperventilating, needed their attention, their questions, and their camera phones.
As I lay in bed later that night, (or morning, or however we calculate those wee hours when we haven’t slept yet but it is clearly the next day according to a calendar) I couldn’t help but think of all the ways that I have nearly died in my life, but narrowly avoided it. I’m sure psychologists have done plenty of studies about the existential crisis that a person goes through when they watch someone else die. I’m sure there are reports about it, that someone has done analysis, research, and collected data.
But fuck all of that, because it wasn’t about to help me stop shaking and replaying these scenes over and over.
My theory is that we can’t stand the thought of our own mortality. Even if we think that we can, we can’t. Really. Who the fuck sits around so enlightened and calm that we accept the fact that it’s ending, and just go about our lives. I think we can do it for a moment, or even for a longer time than that if the need be. Take a terminal cancer patient, for example. After all of the stages of grieving comes acceptance. They know they’re done. Their number is up. Everything about their life at this point is focussed on their death. Their loved ones all know it. They’ve normally stopped working. They consult with their doctors regularly. If they’re able, they do as much as they can with those they love and do the things they’ve always wanted to do. One day, they go to sleep and never wake back up.
But what about the rest of us? We have this realization that it’s all going to be over at any time. The next time we cross a street, it could be our last. We take a few moments to realize that our mortality has been dragged before us kicking and screaming, and then we have to deal with it. But do we have a countdown clock? Do we have a doctor telling us to spend our next few weeks wisely? No! We have to go back to work on the off chance that we live, because if we don’t, we’re going to join those unwashed, unhoused masses sleeping in McDonald’s. We want to spend time with our loved ones, but when we call them, they’re at work! Don’t they realize how precious the little time we have is?! The sinister thing about life is that it distracts us from living.
Anyway, these were my thoughts as I lay dying. Or perhaps, living. Or maybe just somewhere in between.
The tea was as good as always though, even if the cashier was mortified by what had just happened and that I walked in as if it were nothing, still covered in little chunks of what used to be a person. Perfect hint of lemon mixed with sugar yet not too sweet. He even gave it to me for free.