Two weeks into June and the summer rains were coming on a near-perfect schedule. They arrived every day at two o’clock and engulfed Taipei City in a violent downpour. In an instant the rain could take you. Anyone caught in it for more than a few seconds would become as drenched as a soup chicken, a quirky Mandarin saying I relished as much as the bankers and engineers I taught English did “raining cats and dogs.”
I was living in an illegal flat at the top of a seven-story apartment building on Anhe Road, which was sort of like Taipei’s bar district. The selling point, a wrap-around balcony on the first floor, and above, a two-tiered rooftop, meant I could sunbathe all summer. I
I had my visa through Berlitz, but I always had other ways of making money. It trickled in from different places over the course of the month. I was always looking for fast jobs or something to sell. I was doing it. I couldn’t tell you what that meant, but the thought filled my everyday vision like the gild on a desk diary.
The first time it happened, I arrived home near senseless with exhaustion after a long night of teaching. Stepping down into my dark bedroom on the apartment’s second floor, my foot plunged into six inches of cold, black water.
“Jesuschrist!” I shouted with every retelling at the bars that week. “You know the wiring in that place; I could have been electrocuted!”
The drain we sometimes blocked had clogged on it own. Rainwater had collected in that section of the rooftop until it began pouring over the threshold into the apartment, across the hallway, and into my bedroom.
I rushed to the roof, wading through the water to the drain and began to pull weeds and scraps of leaves from the grating. Our oft-neglected garden of “liberated” potted plants and dwarf trees, long since weedy and baked dry by the sun, had found a way to finally get my attention. How many months had leaves been working their way down seven storeys of piping? I pulled them out, first with my hands, then with a plunger, but I could not get the drain to flow. I ran to the downstairs bathroom and grabbed a mop bucket. On the roof, I began to bail bucket after bucket over the edge until the water level was low enough that I could turn my attention to the bedroom. Three more hours, first by bucket, then mop, then towel, to dry the floor tile enough to go to sleep.
My roommate apologized later, when he found the problem had only worsened in the past year. I knew what I was getting into when I moved in, he reminded me. The drain had problems. No amount of finger-pointing would change that.
Mornings, I woke to find a fat tongue of water had crept across the floor. “Why don’t you have it fixed?” an occasional lover asked after putting her foot in it.
“Oh, well, I don’t know,” I said. “It’s crazy, I know. It’s crazy to live like this.” I really did think it was crazy.
“I can help call someone,” she offered.
“No, no, I can do that myself.”
Though, I had to admit, I didn’t know who to call or how to find them. Nor did I know the Mandarin for drain, clog, flood, clear, or electrocuted.
But still. “No, thank you. I can do it on my own. It’s crazy. I know it’s crazy. But life,” I threw my arms open, “it’s nuts! So let it take you where it will. Like this; now I have the opportunity to to wash my floors.”
This was the part of the story I liked most when I repeated it. When other people got upset, I washed my floors. That proved something. My Zen heart, I might have called it. My take-life-as-it-comes liberation. It meant I’d learned everything America had to teach, both the lessons of Dale Carnegie and the Native Americans: I could use every part of the lemon.
Around this time, the turtles in the fish tank downstairs started eating the fish.
For weeks, my roommate and I sat idly watching as we drank our afterwork beers and the fish tails grew ever more ragged. It was just the next stage in the cruel spectacle of nature, we reasoned. Those fish had brutalized each other since day one. African cichlids: fish with personality – which generally means fish with a mean streak.
The tank was the heart of the house, as my roommate had said it would be when I moved in and we got rid of the television. It was our entertainment, our conversation piece, our hub during all-night benders.
Which had been his plan from the get go. My roommate had a vision for the everyday. Olive oil and sandpaper refinished a coffee table reclaimed from the rain. Two coolers and a half-sized fridge made a kitchen of the lower balcony. He bought fabric from the discount center on ShiMing Avenue and stretched it over balsa wood frames to spruce up our bare walls.
Through his eyes, with some coral sand and a strip of blue plastic over the lights, the bright yellow, blue, and orange cichlids could pass for saltwater. All the prestige with none of the cost. Really, we’d be stupid not to.
“Each color comes from a different lake in Africa,” he told me when we got the fish, and I repeated it whenever a crowd formed on the floor around the tank during after-hours parties.
“Saltwater lakes?” a girl wearing a beach wrap for a dress asked as she pressed her face into the luminous frame of the glass.
“Why not?” my roommate said from the far couch before I could blunder forth a straight answer.
As the parties sloshed from early morning over into day, we watched the tank or sat in the sun on the roof. By this time, people were beginning to notice the fishes’ tattered, bloody tails.
“It’s the way of things,” my roommate said, nodding the night we finally figured it out. He still thought the fish were doing this to each other. “They don’t talk about the ‘big fish’ for nothing. It’s the way the world works; it all started here.”
“Voodoo naturalism,” I snorted.
“Dog eat fish, buddy.”
Just then, a turtle who had been sitting still as a monk on a mound of coral grabbed hold of a fish’s tail and bit off a pale-looking chunk.
“Well I’ll be damned,” my roommate said, getting up. He looked in from above then shot me a grin. “These turtles are vicious little bastards, aren’t they?” The turtle wagged his head in the current, his beady eyes idiotically blank. “We’d better get them out of there,” he said.
That afternoon we made a terrarium from a derelict fish tank left by a frequent party-goer, setting it on the roof in the shade of the largest potted plant. The turtles were to join the garden, already snaking it’s tendrils through the building’s drain system in revenge for our neglect.
I taught nights, so I filled the days with errands to feed my money-making projects. I got to know the sooty cell-like electrical shops underneath Jiangguo Highway and the DIY market in a wheezy-looking mall off MinQuan West Road. My favorite vendor at the flower market surprised me on my first visit by yanking off my shoe on the spot to administer medicinal acupressure.
After work, I listened to trance music and planned the speeches I would give at the weddings of old friends and lovers. I started dating a woman who kept her refrigerator filled with budget champagne. When I opened the door looking for water, I found only rows of gold-capped bottle tops like newly-minted coins.
“It’s like she’s always preparing for a celebration,” I said that week a half-dozen times to as many people. But she just liked to drink the stuff.
“Still pretty cool,” my roommate said from his stance beside the fish tank. “How many people can say that, huh?” The roof had been bailed, my bedroom was dry again, and my roommate was introducing his new acquisition to the still-ravaged population of our fish tank.
“I got a lobster for our saltwater tank,” he’d said on his way in the door, throwing his briefcase on the couch. I looked up from my notebook and gave him a skeptical look. “It’s really a crayfish, but there’s no reason we can’t call it a lobster.”
After letting the temperature adjust by floating the plastic bag on the water’s surface, he poured in its contents. The creature sunk, motionless, straight to the bottom.
I thought our lobster was pretty cool. For a week I watched it pick its way along the bottom of the tank, swiping dumbly in the wrong direction whenever a fish sidled up to peck at one of its eye stalks.
Upstairs, my flooding room had gone through its own changes: the bottom bookshelves were empty, and the books they had held bloomed with warped pages from table tops. The curtains were shortened. I kept my electrical cords wrapped in plastic bags.
The lobster took up a position on the tip of a piece of driftwood and didn’t move for days. It sat frozen, its arms and pinchers spread wide like a stoned raver caught in a moment of embracing the whole world. That, apparently, was his deal.
I sat on the couch dog-earing a copy of the Power of Myth one night, when I looked up to catch the moment that explained everything. The lobster, claw hooked into the tail of a large orange fish, was furiously working the appendages on its face across the fish’s back. All the while the fish darted in mad circles, trying to dash our lobster against the rocks.
“Hey!” I shouted, getting near the tank. “Hey!” But what then? I took off my slipper and brandished it. “You let go!” I shouted. “You let go!” The crayfish lost his grip and fell, as if he were blown of glass, back to the bottom.
“We gotta get him out of there!” I yelled. But when my roommate came over and studied the lobster, now doggedly making his way back to his fishing perch, he said without much hurry that we sure had better, but it could wait until morning.
By the next day, the lobster must have had his fill, because (as near as we could tell) during the night he’d burrowed his way down into the coral and fish dung and buried himself. That was the last we saw of him.
A month into the flooding, we went in search of a chemistry store. We had another plan to make money.
We had the address of the store from a friend who’d moved to Bali to trade wicker chairs and build a small resort. The store was located just north of the train station in the old city center, where rows of three-story offices had held the headquarters for the manufacturing companies that had been Taiwan’s piece of the Asian Miracle. Now the zinc company signs were grey with car exhaust, and every third building was shuttered.
Most were inhabited by antiques dealers. We spied their wares through open doorways: rows of yellow vases with dust caked around their mouths in one, in another a room of clay soldiers stacked atop each other like bundles of wood, and in a few, lumps jade arrayed on sheets of black velvet.
The wealth of the Orient. Not that I’d think that. But my expat friends could be excused if they did after hearing about this part of town, a part they’d never gone to, I was sure, or else the people back home who would never come, or all tourists with their day trips, or anyone who wasn’t switched on right now, like we were, on the street, lost because there were no numbers on any of the buildings, backtracking, stopping into shops, lost but switched on.
We changed tack and started searching the shelves of antique shops for it, the thing, whatever it revealed itself to be. In one shop, we looked carefully over rows of bronze figures. My roommate held up a bronze Guang-gong, the red-faced god of war and Taiwan’s celestial patron. He hoped to co-opt Guang-gong as a guiding spirit. For months, he’d been planning a full-back tattoo of the god standing with the Earth underfoot and seraphim with his parents’ faces hovering over either shoulder. But we didn’t have enough money for that statue.
I hefted a seated bodhisattva as if to judge it by weight. “What about this one? Guanyin. The buddha of infinite compassion.” The statue’s gold face was a mask of androgynous satisfaction.
“Yeah, could work,” my roommate said, still looking through the choices.
“That’s a good price.”
“Exactly the right price.”
“Let’s get it.”
“You think so?”
“Definitely,” he said, taking the statue from me and cradling it in his two hands. “Because this is what we’re about – this right here. Living this life. Doing this.” He shook the statue for emphasis. At the counter, I handed a crisp blue 1000NT note to the shop keeper. As we left, I held the statue out and admired it. “Guys like Guang-gong,” I said, “the real guy, I mean. The historic Guang-gong. He didn’t do some desk job.”
“He did it his way. He was the kind of guy who would stay out drinking all day if he wanted. And society didn’t get it. But he did. He was the kind of guy that made his own rules.”
My roommate nodded as we walked past the bronzes we hadn’t picked: tigers, dragons, oxen. He began pointing out the ones he knew. “Here’s the God of Luck. Here’s his three-legged toad. Here’s the phoenix.” Then he clapped me on the shoulder and said, “This is our lives, man.”
And then, as if the statue was already at work bringing fortune into our lives, right next door we found the shop we’d been looking for all along.
One of my regular students came to class that week with a ream of paper he’d printed from Wikipedia. He handed the sheets to me. He’d printed a stack of entries covering the classic epic poems: Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Iliad. He told me he wanted to base the class on these from now on.
“On these pages?” I asked.
“I think we should do something like this.”
“You think we should do what?”
“I think we should do something like this. This sort of story. Taiwanese people, we don’t have our own story. We don’t know what this means: ‘Taiwanese’. So, I think, we should have one of our own.”
“An epic poem.”
“Yes, this kind of poem.”
For the last thirty years, my student had slaved for a Taiwanese tech firm, first as an accountant, then a VP, then a director. Now, wealthy at last in his late fifties, he had decided to take stock. By day he sat on two boards and held a vice-presidency at his old technology company. By night, he studied English, frequented the hostess bars and drove a convertible.
Just having found these poems, I got the feeling, just being able to hold the names of places and characters, having them down in black and white where they could not escape, was most important to him. “I never knew these things,” he said with some awe, though what exactly he meant wasn’t clear to me.
“The first thing you need is a hero,” I said.
“Okay, what else? Let’s plan this out.” His hands were nested as if in a meeting of one of the boards on which he sat.
“Well,” I said, “a conflict.”
“How to spell?”
I spelled it for him, and he wrote it on a loose sheet of paper. He smiled broadly. “I like this. What next? This is great idea.”
“This is great idea?” I asked. This is how we were supposed to point out grammar mistakes.
“Yes, great idea.”
“Just great idea?” I tried again.
“Just great idea.”
“No. This is a great idea.”
My student nodded. Outside, the rain had started.
My roommate thought he got it right when, towards the end of the season of bailing, he brought home four scarlet crabs. They had blue, sad-looking eyes and impressive claws on their right sides. They were definitely bottom-feeders, though. He’d checked this time. For a week, I came home and watched them sleepily wander, probing the sediment with the thinner claw and sending thoughtful bubbles shimmering to the surface.
I had gotten the hang of the drain, too. If I stayed at home on afternoons, watched for the signs, I could keep the drain clear with a plunger by stepping out a few times in the storm. On days I wasn’t able to keep the water in check, I set to work bailing as though nothing could stop me. The rain struck my bare shoulders. My arms were warm with the effort of pitching the water. The massive city all around had shrunk in the storm, obscured by the rain, until my rooftop seemed an island all to itself.
The apartment, though, after a season of flooding, was bloated and sagging. Stains had appeared on the couches and an arm-pitty smell hung in the corners. The tank, meanwhile, had become green and brown with algae.
Then the crabs started vanishing. I came home from work to count first just three, and a week later, just two. My roommate opened the filter in pursuit, flipped over rocks to find them, but to no avail. They were gone. Before long, there was only one left.
Then, as suddenly as it came, the flooding was over. The storms weakened to where the drains could handle it, and the waters stopped getting high enough to seep into my bedroom. I brought the bailing bucket back indoors.
I started seeing someone new. She wore silk stockings and had a British accent from studying over there, though now she only wanted to watch TV in Taiwanese. When she noticed the black mold under which I’d been sleeping for months, she refused to return until hot water and bleach were put to every surface in the bedroom.
“But I just washed the floors!” I protested.
“Do it again. Don’t be like the farmer who stands around all day waiting for a roast duck to fly into his mouth.”
“It means: don’t be lazy.”
We figured out the problem with the crabs, too. The maid my roommate had hired to deal with the state of the apartment unwittingly uncovered the mystery.
“She kept asking me about the snacks I’d been eating before bed,” he told me one night after work.
“The crabs! The little guys had all crawled under my bed. She thought I was eating them for a midnight snack.” He mimed scarfing a bagful before giving me a crooked laugh.
“Yeah. So I went back to the fish store. It turns out they need to breathe air sometimes.”
“Jesus,” I said, and looked into the tank. “But what were they doing under your bed?”
“Who knows? Looking for water, I guess. They were all dried out.”
“Poor bastards.” The little guys had been just a month too late.
A few days later, I woke up to find my girlfriend already downstairs, admiring a pair of puffer fish my roommate had added to the tank in the night. They were playful, pursing their beaked-mouths against glass when she touched her palm gently to it. A jar of dried whole shrimp, their special food, was on the top of the tank.
“What’s that?” she asked me, pointing to the bottom. The last red crab was now nothing but a pair of claws on the coral floor.
“Beats me,” I said, but of course, it had to have been the puffers. I could hear them grinding their beaked teeth as they bobbed against the glass. “This tank, it’s like a nature show. Like the BBC: the carnival of life, right in my living room.”
“Don’t talk rubbish.” She kept her face turned away from me, but I could see she was smiling.
“I mean it,” I said, winding my arms around her waist. “I’m living alongside life’s great mystery. How many people can say that?”
Sebastian Bitticks holds MFAs in creative nonfiction and poetry from City University of Hong Kong and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago respectively. His writing has appeared in magazines and newspapers throughout Asia. He is a returnee to the USA.