市 (Table With Puffy Bowlegs)
“This will be your room,” Lee Su-An said. She pointed at a locked door.
“Can I see inside?”
Su-An blinked. She had unnaturally large-framed glasses, behind which Nolan couldn’t read any emotion.
“I just want to feel out the possibilities.”
After a short pause, Su-An nodded once quickly and unlocked the door. She did not follow Nolan in.
The classroom they had assigned him felt, on first glance, disconcertingly dingy, and Nolan could not place why. Four columns of small student desks faced a dark slate chalkboard. Nolan did not see any chalk nor any sign the board was actually used.
A bookshelf took up most of the back wall. The few books on it had brightly colored spines with red Chinese characters. Nolan opened a couple. Their layout was bright and sparse, like children’s books, but they had no English, nor any theme he could identify. They might even have been just some form of decoration.
Nolan slipped between the desks to reach the front. Each desk had a metal grate beneath its veneer top, presumably to hold books. Nolan was sure, if he tried to sit at one, his thighs would be pinched. And he was supposed to be teaching senior high-school students. He wondered how small they actually were, in this country. He tried to imagine what they would look like, sitting at their desks and facing him.
The wall to his right someone had painted a military green, a shade lighter than the metal of the student desks but still grimy in its own way. The wall used to have windows facing into the hallway, but they had been boarded up and painted over.
At least he could do something with the insets. He could decorate them—or have the students decorate them—with colorful pictures around which they could then build stories.
Yes, the wall had possibilities. For the first time since he had stepped off the plane at Chiang Kai Shek Airport, Nolan had a sense that teaching in Taiwan might not turn out to be such a bad choice. Back home, it had seemed both romantic and sensible—earn a little money while living in a foreign country. But he hadn’t comprehended how disconcertingly foreign a foreign country could be.
His nascent hope kept him through his walk home. The agency had rented him a gloomy apartment situated in a monstrous cement building about ten minutes’ walk from the school. He could take the broad sidewalks along major streets, but he preferred to wander along more narrow ones decorated with bright neon and fluorescent shop signs. He liked looking at the signs and wondering what they meant. Nolan was especially fond of one symbol he often saw repeated: shaped like a table, with puffy bowlegs like those in a children’s cartoon. The table had been speared through the middle with another fat, balloon-like pole. He decided it would make a nice ideogram for “café”.
The color and glamor of the signs didn’t penetrate down to street level. Nolan found this unsettling, especially because he couldn’t figure out why. In his evening walks back home, lights from the shop windows would reflect on the concrete sidewalks, imbuing them with a warm, homey feeling. That light made the sides of the streets seem safer than the black asphalt of the roadway beside which they ran. But here, the light from the restaurants and small dressmaking shops seemed to vanish the moment it left the proprietor’s space.
By the time Nolan arrived home, the streets were flooded in that dark soupy ink. The people passing him didn’t find it unsafe: children, still in school uniform, dashed into the unlit spaces of a public park square; old men stumbled intently on their way to some unknown destination; streams of small women, many of them weary with late pregnancy, strolled past without the slightest interaction of fear.
And motor scooters roamed everywhere. Their purring motors crept up on Nolan from all directions. The drivers made unexpected and dangerous changes of direction, and regarded the sidewalks as just another section of roadway. The other pedestrians didn’t make any effort to avoid them, but Nolan felt nervous when any one brushed close enough that he could feel the heat of its exhaust pipes on his shins. His sense of dislocation and despair was returning.
At least the light of his flat, seen from the street below, was off. Daniel was most likely out. Nolan didn’t really mind Daniel, an Australian on his second stint of teaching. He knew a lot more about Taipei than Nolan—who was still feeling the effects of jet lag—could take in. But Daniel was very outgoing and Nolan still felt a little tender around the edges from the breakup that had come with his travel plans. He thought Daniel would make a good friend, but, just now, Nolan felt he’d rather absorb the sights and smells of this new city on his own. And Daniel never stopped drooling over Taiwanese women in a way Nolan couldn’t help but find racist.
As he fumbled with his key to their apartment, Nolan felt a huge tsunami of jet lag rear up at the edge of his brain. “You have to stay up to nine, mate,” Daniel had warned him, but Nolan knew he’d be unable to last to seven-thirty. Even if he did stay awake, he’d have nothing to do: the apartment lacked both TV and Internet. Nolan showered off the grime of the day and collapsed directly into his bed.
Just as he slipped into the deep unconsciousness of sleep, Nolan had a sense he was once more in that classroom, facing the empty desks. But before he could formulate any fears or expectations, the vision slipped away, like the country itself, into the inky darkness.
D. M. Kerr is the writing name of a Canadian writer currently living and working in Singapore, where he teaches game design and programming. His work has recently been published recently in Ideate Review (also about Nolan) and The Timberline Review. He lived for five years in Taiwan, and, yes, he does know what 市 means.