I try not thinking all the time

Kris Knight

On Eric’s fingers he smelled chalk. There was a blue, yellowish smear that circumvented his palm. It began at his littlest finger and reached all the way across to the base of his thumb. Eric stared upwards and created a small bullet pointed index of everything that felt immediately relevant. Calk can be used to preserve silver when kept in close proximity. Calxophobia is widely accepted to be the definition for one afraid of blackboard worthy calcium carbonate, though the colour Eric noted was not specified. Could one only be afraid of white chalk? That alongside hydrated silica, oxides of aluminium, phosphated variants of the same abrasive substance can be found in most domestically purchasable store bought brands of toothpaste. And then so while thinking of this, rubbing his fingers together and sensing the compacted mesh of powdery and soapish oil, Eric found that he had thoughts of Dettol brand disinfectant and of sea salt, and for these he did not know why.

I can find these things, and connect them to where I am, here in this place. But I’m still unsure, of what this is I mean, is what I’m trying to say

Eric had been waiting on the corner for what seemed almost like fourteen minutes when Pieter arrived and the two of them walked up the Hutong alley in one of Beijing’s older, still intact districts towards the first bar that they had proposed to drink in. Eric had wanted to go there because it was small and comfortable with stools located directly at the bar where they could sit and not have to face many other people, and that he knew the bartender and knew that they would be generally left alone and so he felt at ease and somewhat safer there within that space to relax, enough at least to be generally able to actually, honestly converse with another person and a friend, and not end up ten minutes or so later feeling regretful and anxious about what he had previously said, or should have said, fretting over the inconsequential opinions that he might have been perceived to have offered, or perhaps only inferred. Pieter had been fine with the choice as well, because it was relatively close to his home and he didn’t have to walk too far.

It would be good to drink something with a lot of fruit in it, Eric said as the two pulled up their stools to the synthetically constructed faux bamboo enveloped bar. There is a shark hanging from the ceiling, an inflatable shark, Pieter said. It has a name, Eric added, but I forget it sometimes, like now.

They ordered drinks that arrived in primary coloured plastic skulls. Both of the drinks had small, mountainous islands of foam floating on top, and both of them came with a lot of fruit, as Eric had requested. Thanking the bartender Eric also asked, is this Exotica? Should that be what’s playing? Is that what this is. I’m looking at my phone and I can read Arthur Lyman, Cugart, Enoch Light, Les Baxter. I understand that Martian Denny is a name. I can find these things, and connect them to where I am, here in this place. But I’m still unsure, of what this music is I mean, is what I’m trying to say, and I don’t understand how what I can here aligns itself with what I’m hearing. I’m unsure, I guess, is what I mean.

Pieter sipped his drink, then directly changed the subject. Recently, he said, I have begun to feel an obligation to have children. My wife, I am to believe, feels this too. Though I don’t know which came first, her attachment to this feeling of obligation, or mine. And I’m not sure either, whether the inclination came first, or her believing that there should be an inclination. It can seem sometimes like we’re being led by our aspirational expectations of what we should be this time in our shared, collected lives, be anxious about. I don’t think Judy will ever want children, Eric bridged. Can I tell you something? He asked. I feel that I can tell you this, and that I want to tell you and feel that I can, because you know me and because of this you realise that we’re here and you have like, a pretty developed and unspoken awareness of the whole sub-contextual emotional landscape here and such, so like that is to say you have scope, is kind of what I mean. So, a few days ago, Judy and I were walking back from her office. It was dark, but wasn’t late, in that it didn’t feel late, but maybe it was. And then so, yeah I guess just I watched her like from out of nowhere, or nowhere previously warned or stated anyhow, just watched her like run down this stray cat and kind of… stamp, on its tail. Like she really came down hard on it too. It was definitely a stray, a stray cat. There are lots of them in the neighbourhood and people just sort of feed them but they’re like totally strays. But she…she lured it in. Can I say lured? Yeah. She lured it in with these little noises and then just stamped on it. I saw her do it, and then carry on like nothing had happened. For real, I watched her do it.

I’m invested in this, Pieter said, but I’m also struggling to recognise what it is that I’m drinking here. And I’m finding myself unable to be listening to you, while not sure what it is that I’m drinking. I can’t honestly say that I feel as if I’m really present. Well, Eric asked him in a neutral tone, what does it taste like? I can’t distinguish that much, Pieter replied. I can taste pineapple and lime juice and maybe guava, but not much else, maybe orange. But there has to be more to it right? You’d think so, one of them said, wouldn’t you? Then the other added. But maybe, I don’t know.

As they drank another foam-covered nondescript and yet accurately tropical fruit flavoured drink, groups came in and went out behind them, eventually leaving only another pair sat at the circular table behind them. A large American girl adored in a sequined, denim jacket was arguing with a small, Middle Eastern looking man. But you can’t say that word; she had less than a minute before. It doesn’t matter all right, it doesn’t matter because if the original meaning is like, lost, them why refer back to it. Words are all about that: context and shit. But I refuse to have it taken from me. It feels as if it’s being stolen. Would you have been offended if he had said something else? No? So why’d he use it then? Can I ask you, do you need this fight this just because of some underlying sense of principle, or do you like, just need to be right? I don’t need to be right and I really don’t think it’s an irrelevant point because it’s so not. I just don’t think its ok for you to get so upset about it when I’m ok with it. He said Aryan. Aryan. She repeated the word at least three times that Pieter and Eric counted. Why’d he have to do that? Why not pick any – other – word? It’s not wrong. No, it’s not, but then why not Iranian, why not Persian, why not anything else? I think it was the answer to a crossword puzzle. Then why have that conversation in public? Why do that? I just think that it was uncalled for. I just don’t like that he used it.
Excuse me, Pieter said, half turning to the conversationally arguing couple. Not to say that maybe he’s not an asshole, I don’t know. But he’s also kind of maybe not wrong, depending on the context. But, so it might just be misappropriation, he might not have meant it, meant it that way. Anyway, sorry to butt in, just thought I’d say. Both the man and the girl stared at Pieter, who turned back to the bar and decided that he wanted to pay for his and Eric’s drinks as they then walked what Eric counted as fifteen smallish steps, not strides, into their second bar of the evening.

On the wall there were shields, medieval placards painted with what Eric assumed were family crests. He began to open the browser on his phone to look up what animals represented what, but then got distracted by the swords. There were swords too, mounted on the walls. Walking underneath the tables was a Doberman dressed in armour. He looks like an armadillo, or a beetle or something, Eric said. Does he like wearing it? Pieter asked the bartender. Wouldn’t you? He replied. Yeah, I would wear that, Pieter said. Eric turned with his phone still in his hand. I wouldn’t know from what period any of these originated. I know that they’re all from different places, in time like, but I don’t know how to Identify.

You feel it’s an obligation? Eric asked once the two had found a table. Maybe that’s the wrong word, Pieter continued, but I just worry that she perceived that there is this order to how things are supposed to continue, and if we don’t then what are we doing? Did she use the word stagnating? Eric asked. No. God no. I think that’s a horrible word. Did you discuss it afterwards? The cat? Stamping on it like that? I tried to, but she just said that it was a stray and that it was dirty and unsafe and so she was trying to like, scare it away. But she stamped on it? Yeah, and she lured it in first too. That’s fucked up. Does it worry you? We don’t have a cat, but yeah, it does worry me. It does. But you said that you wanted children? I do. And I want us to have a family; I feel that it would be good for us; I just don’t like that to think of it as an obligation. Have you tried to? Of course man, I try not thinking all the time.

he noticed a fleshly looking oval lying in what appeared to be a gel like substance or oil or some other form of viscous and reflective liquid.

Neither Pieter nor Eric really wanted to stay at the second bar long enough to get drunk. Eric had already wanted to leave for some time prior to suggesting it, having early classes in the morning, and feeling already light headed, less than slightly depleted, and worried that the power bar on his phone was declining. Pieter had been fine with the decision, choosing instead to drink at home, where it was cheaper and where their wouldn’t be an armoured Doberman attempting to generously clean the elbow to his left arm. The pair had said goodnight and separated. Eric would continue on to cross the city via the subway, while Pieter along the walk back to his Hutong home through the alleyway would be met once again by the large denim dressed American girl, who had seemingly been waiting for him to reappear. She would attack him, hitting him around the back of the head with what felt like a piece of brick, but was more likely her purse. Though the purse could have had a piece of brick inside of it, Pieter would later tell Eric, that wasn’t entirely impossible. He would then fall to the floor only to be straddled by her, as her denim jacket discarded plastic sequins that dropped onto his face, circumventing his nose and falling into his mouth. As she strangled him with both of her wide hands around his neck, she would repeat the words fascist, you fucking fascist into his ear. What would strike Pieter, though not at that precise moment, was that the he had been able to feel the immense heat of the woman’s breath in his ear, and how unrealistically intimate that seemed to have made the whole encounter. Only later in the hospital, would he get distracted by thinking about this and loose track of his then present conversation, when half listening to a doughy police officer who was at that moment would be questioning him in bored and inexhaustibly monotone English whether he was going to charge the woman for his medical bills. He would finish his evening with nothing more than two half-inch bruises around his Adam’s apple and a torn jacket pocket, where the woman had first grabbed him. He would however, later resolve to never include himself in other people’s conversations.

At the precise moment that Pieter was thirty seconds away from being assaulted by a semi-unknown assailant in a darkened Hutong alleyway, Eric was about to step onto the stairwell for the fifth line of the subway, when he noticed a fleshly looking oval lying in what appeared to be a gel like substance or oil or some other form of viscous and reflective liquid. Eric then tapped the lump with his shoe and leaning in closer discovered that the liquid was blood, and that the carrier bag sized island was a foetal, hunched up cat. Circling the subway entrance, Eric found that there was no one there around him, and so after pacing for a few elongated minutes, he took off his jacket and picked up the cat. He was at first surprised as to how soft and limp it seemed to be, and how the animal’s immediate heat reached him, penetrating the thin polyester of his jacket.

Kris Knight

Eric began down the stairwell carrying the cat, then he turned and retreated back out of the subway remembering the guards, and so spilling more than a little of the animal’s blood on his shirt and trousers, he put the jacket back on and the creature against his chest. The bulge of the cat weighed on his chest as he steadied himself down the stairs once again, this time with one arm on the railing and the other pressed against the back of the animal. Through his jacket, small teardrops of blood began to blossom, and had the subway guard been awake to notice, he would have seen a large shotgun blast shadow of blood across Eric’s genitals and inner thigh, where he had held the wounded feline, squeezed there above the ground, while trying to put his jacket back on. But they were sleeping and Eric managed to squeeze through the security barrier, with the animal making only two slight groans as he held it uncomfortably close, its breath strong and heavy, and reminiscent Eric thought, of tinned mushroom soup.

It was only once he was on the subway, did Eric consider that he had no actual idea as to where it was that he was taking the animal, nor what he could do to save it. The subway carriage was deserted except for one middle-aged man who was dressed in the uniform of a migrant construction worker. There would not be any available veterinary services open, not that he knew where to find one anyway. He had somewhere in the recesses of thought, he assumed been on route to carrying it home, that he was taking it to his apartment, but he too soon quickly realised the futility of this idea near almost instantly. On his hands the cat’s blood had coagulated, leaving a thick, crimson crust that held slightly like semi-settled glue. When he had been thirteen years old, he and two invited friends named Sam and Sarah had raided his parent’s liquor cabinet, and in an attempt not to take too much from any one bottle, had mixed small thimble shots of nearly everything on the shelf together into tall milkshake glasses. Drinking their concoctions and then heading into the local miniature forest, owned by a nearby Scout troupe, all three of them had quickly felt unevenly beyond drunk, and not particularly great, it had only been Sarah who had vomited. She threw up by a small and unmaintained pond, where it had disturbed its crest of algae and left raw particles floating on the surface. It had been a disturbingly violent pink, not dissimilar to fruit foam Eric would later think, due to the large amounts of Campari that the trio had added to more than half of the drinks. And so afraid that she was dying, the third member of the group, Sam, had decided to go home leaving Eric and Sarah alone. Barely able to walk, Eric had managed to carry Sarah back to his the home, where his parents were still absent for the following forty minutes, and had rolled her underneath his bed, where she spoke to him with the extended pauses of the alcoholically blindsided. From the arguable clarity of his adult reflection, Eric had never been sure what he had intended to achieve by trying to hide her there. He still remained uncertain as to how long he could have conceivably gotten away with it before he was caught. The answer had been exactly one hour and ten minutes, which was the time that it took for Sarah’s parents to arrive and demanded to know if his very own adult guardians tolerated such early afternoon drinking amongst the barely teenage. It hindsight, it had not been one of his proudest moments, nor would it be by the end of his adolescence, one of the worst. Perhaps it had been the ill-conceived first offer of oral sex performed by Sarah onto Eric that had led him to such a selfish and infantile course of action. Either way, as he recalled this, while cradling the dying cat in his arms on the Beijing subway at the exact moment that Pieter was hearing the

words fascist, fascist you fascist for the sixteenth time, he realised that the under the bed option was not one that was any longer available to him in his present situation, and so continued to think about what to do as he watched the destination indicator’s light blink tirelessly away before him.

Eric woke up five stops after his own had passed. The migrant worker was gone and the carriage was empty, except for Eric and his blood soaked jacket, which lay on the seat beside him. The cat’s blood had soaked through the jacket and had left patchy smears across the seat’s well-worn pleather. The cat was neither on any of the carriage’s seats nor had it fallen on the floor. Eric picked up the jacket and searched underneath the plastic seat mountings, then scrambled to his knees attempting to locate the macabre breadcrumb trail of the animal’s blood. In the next subway station, he looked for a guard booth, or a station agent who might be able to give him access to the train’s security cameras. He had decided that he would tell them in his broken Chinese that he had lost his backpack. He considered as to whether to say bag or schoolbag, as to whether which one would make him seem more sympathetic, more socially-conscious and in need of understanding at this hour, but then noticed the bloodstains across his crouch. However in the following station there were no guards, nor apparent booth for them, and so Eric crossed the subway undercarriage to the adjacent line, and backtracked five stops, scanning the empty platforms of every passing station along the way through the train carriage’s windows.

While walking up the six flights of stairs to their shared apartment, Eric listened to the series of audio messages left on his phone by Pieter, the final one asking if he would be able to collaborate his story in the near future. Eric agreed and decided that he would turn his phone off, only then remembering that for some reason that he didn’t understand the alarm would only work when the phone was switched on, and so he turned it back on feeling slightly defeated. Inside Judy was positioned at a right angle in bed, with her Ipad resting against her knees, its cover folded to form a small pyramid that kept it vertically aligned. She paused and identified the large claret stains circling her boyfriend’s penis. Pieter got beaten up, Eric said, and she nodded and went back to the show that she was streaming, which was all about watching a petite Japanese woman consume an inordinate amount of instant noodles in one sitting. Eric placed the stained clothes to soak in a pink plastic basin, then climbed into bed and exhaled for longer than he thought possible. When the video finished Judy asked him if he wanted to watch another with her. Eric nodded, and as the Japanese model, now dressed in only a black sports bra and grey sweatpants began to unwrap twenty four soy-flavoured boiled eggs into a Muji brand Tupperware container, he pressed his head against Judy’s shoulder, and considered how much space there was directly under their bed as the smell of blood meshed with the sent of chalk dust that circumvented his left hand.

Author: jameskramerblog

James Kramer is a fiction writer currently based in Beijing. His writing has appeared in Your Impossible Voice, as well as various Poetry anthologies. He currently writes a monthly-ish column for LeftLion magazine on China.

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