I ran into my next door neighbor down in the alley. She was shoving the bodies of Indonesian children into the dumpster. It was nearly overflowing and she was having a hell of a time. I would have offered to help, but I was late for work, and I found the whole thing a little bit disgusting anyway.
“Oh hi, Kyle,” Laurie said as I tried to hurry past. She’s a big friendly woman and never misses a chance to chat. Apparently, she and her husband had a low-grade infestation for a while, but it kept getting worse, and eventually they did something about it. “It was Ted’s allergies, really,” she said. “I mean, sure, it was annoying seeing them scurry away every time you opened up a closet door, but we could put up with that. It was the athletic shoes. Day and night, turning out pairs of MegaAir Premiums or Phantom Blacktop Pros, it got to be too much. Just the hint of that glue smell and Ted would be stopped up for the entire week.” I nodded sympathetically. She wiped the sweat off her face before heaving another small corpse onto the overflowing pile. It was a little boy wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt.
“We called the condo management company. Called and called and called them. But they said it was our problem unless we could prove that all the units had them. Finally we just gave in and paid for the exterminators ourselves.” I gave her another nod, hoping I was hitting the ideal combination of friendly interest and busy preoccupation. Laurie and Ted are nice enough, but they’re just neighbors. There really isn’t much of an upside to getting too close.
And anyway, I have my own problems. These last couple months, every morning when I get into work my cubicle is full of Indians. I find them sitting in my chair, tapping experimentally on my keyboard, rummaging through my papers. I chase them out, but they hang around just outside, watching me work, talking to each other in that musical Indian way. Sometimes I wonder if they miss Calcutta or Bangalore or wherever it is they come from—the food, the crowds, the blazing sun of the day and the humid, enveloping night. But mostly they just get on my nerves—one more thing to deal with on top of everything else.
I take a chance and duck out of work a little early, hoping to beat the traffic to my aunt’s. She lives down south, right near the Mexican border. After dinner we sit out on her veranda and watch the sun set through a layer of brown haze. It gives everything a warm, orange glow, as if we were sitting in front of a fire. “I just read that a lot of that smog comes straight from China,” I say, trying to cheer up my aunt. “All of those coal-fired power plants.” She teaches philosophy at a community college but finds it very unsatisfying. Apparently her students aren’t really given to introspection.
“Oh God,” she groans. “China. Don’t remind me. I was teaching my ethics class yesterday. And I told them about that thought experiment. You know. What if you had a button, and if you pushed it, a man would die in China and you would get a million dollars, and nobody would ever know. Would you push the button? And so of course there is one of those boys, there is always one of those boys. God, those boys, with their sunburns and their hangovers and their feeling that someone has taken something that belonged to them. This boy raises his hand, and I know what he’s going to say, so I pretend I don’t see him, but he says it anyway. ‘Hell, yeah, I’d push it,’ he says. ‘There’s like billions of them, right? Hell, yeah! I’d push it and push it and push it.’ And he’s jabbing his finger in the air, like he’s pushing a button and just won’t stop. I almost walked out right there.” She looks tired. She stopped dying her hair a few months ago and now she’s half brunette and half gray. It looks like old age slowly pouring down on her from the sky.
A few hundred yards away, illegal immigrants pour over the border fence into America. They come in waves, a great cataract of humanity—hope and hunger and desperation all made flesh. A few drivers honk their car horns. It gives the evening a festive atmosphere.
“Do you think the world is too small?” I say, finally. “We barely have room to move. We’re all crushed together, all pushing against each other. What are we supposed to do with all of this? All of these people?” But my aunt isn’t really listening. She stares toward the border, composing insults to hurl at her students.
Back home, I can’t sleep. I realize I miss the rustling of the Indonesian children from the next apartment. Somehow, the sound of all of them working away, creating high-quality footwear in two twelve-hour shifts, had soothed me. I wonder if my neighbors feel the same.
I can still feel the Chinese air in my lungs, little particles of mercury and soot from the Mongol steppes. I think about all of them, a whole country, packed together tighter than we are, a cramped factory of a country, always humming, always looking to make a few extra yuan. On an impulse, I look up the yuan on the internet. Someone has posted a nice picture. I download it and Photoshop it a little bit, print it out. A thousand yuan note. It looks almost real. I print a few more and hold them in my hand. I imagine I’m a Chinese boy, ready for a date with the neighborhood beauty. Her name is Mayzhu, and all of the boys in the neighborhood are jealous. We walk down the street in the smoky evening, talking about our parents, about school. She wants to become an engineer and move to Beijing. In a shop window I catch sight of the two of us, and I am momentarily shocked by my dark Asian eyes.
We eat dim sum and she laughs at my jokes, even the ones that aren’t funny. I’m torn between my desire for her and my desire for her happiness, surprised by the pain the thought of her leaving me brings. After dinner we slip into the alley next to the restaurant and I pull her to me. The air smells of tar and soot and garbage, but we still kiss, briefly, like American movie stars. I feel the heat of her skin beneath her Calvin Klein sweatshirt and pull her closer, hoping to erase the distance, the unbridgeable gap between us.
We hear screams from the street. Mayzhu and I run out of the alley.
On the crowded sidewalk, I see people falling over, collapsing. Distraught
husbands, wives, children crouch, wailing over crumpled forms. The sounds
of human panic and pain grow louder and louder, the scene more and more
chaotic and crazed as person after person falls to the ground completely
still. Beside me I feel a movement, and I look to see Mayzhu on the ground
next to me, more like an empty pile of clothes than a human form. I kneel
down next to her, somehow knowing that when I touch her she will already
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