Like pounded rice I lie on the floor in the back, only breathing. Mr. Wong is always angry. I stand and smooth my dress over my thighs. It is still day outside. He does not look at me as I leave.
Prices have dropped on leather this month and I walk down to the market to see. I run a business selling wallets, purses, some necklaces. Mr. Yang is my employee and some people spread rumors that I do not treat him with sufficient respect but this is a lie.
Sometimes it gets hard for me to breathe outside. I don't like to stop, people will notice, but I slow down, and breathe as deeply as I can, focusing on the path of my footsteps.
The government man smiles at me near the market and I perform my greeting as my ancestors did. It is hot today.
Prices have not dropped enough for me. I haggle but I only buy a small piece. I need tea. I drink it standing. When I first did this it upset the tea man. He said, sit, sit, but I would not. Sometimes I switch tea shops.
They say the emperor is far away but I say he is close. I say we hold him in our hands.
"Only that?" says Mr. Yang when I hand him the leather.
"Too expensive today," I say.
'Where is my money?" he says.
"I paid you yesterday, Mr. Yang."
"Electricity going up."
"You need a husband," he says.
"I'll pick up the other purse tomorrow," I say.
Mr. Yang is very good. Before I hired two women but their work was not as good. Mr. Yang does high quality work and he lives modestly.
To be honest I do not like leather very much, though I have learned a lot about it.
I am a resident of the city of Shanghai. I have never left China. Though I could have. I did not want to. Perhaps I was afraid to leave my city. I know how to keep my head down, to "keep my nose to the grindstone."
Some people say Westerners are stupid, that they have not had to suffer like China and so they are stupid. This is not how I see it. What I see in their eyes is time. They have a very different clock.
I wake up one hour before sunrise every morning, even in winter, and do some exercises. I like to drink very cold water, I keep my refrigerator very cold, even in winter. I have small breasts but I have learned to like them. I do not know if I will ever have children. When I was twenty I got pregnant and had an abortion.
I am thirty-one years old.
Shanghai is an interesting city. I am glad I live here. When I was a girl I wanted to be a painter. I have been to Beijing and Xian and Hong Kong but they do not have the light of my city. Perhaps when I am old I will paint. In watercolor.
My mother is dead. She has been dead for five years. I visit my father once a week. My father and mother separated when I was very young. For a while he had a girlfriend, but he no longer does. I make dinner at my apartment and bring it to him for us to eat together.
Many women my age in Shanghai now want to marry foreigners, though not all admit it. They mean wealthy foreigners, of course. But we are spoiled. But then, so are the men my age, and some older men, most of them an only child.
In Shanghai, I have learned that business is part of time. Each day marks your body and your mind, and the nation of China. I was taught as a girl that China is both bigger than the borders on the map, and smaller. Like the ancient silk merchants, we know here how to wait, and how to seize opportunity the way you can seize a man around his throat, before anyone notices.
But when I have a hard time breathing I worry that I am wrong, that this is not true. I worry that I am missing something about the connection between business and time, that I do not understand something vital.
I was in the plaza last month and I saw an American stand on a concrete post and shout in Mandarin, "May China live one thousand years!" and the young people around him all smiled and cheered. Foreigners do many strange things.
I like to listen to the American singer Tom Waits. I like his scratchy voice. Why don't Chinese men have voices like Tom Waits? I know I am foolish.
Mr. Wong is angry for many reasons. He lost face nine months ago. He was introducing a man from Switzerland to one of his acquaintances here in Shanghai and the two men did not get along. The Swiss man was unusually arrogant, but then so was Mr. Wong's acquaintance. They should have gotten along. I was drinking with them and the Swiss man kept saying, in Mandarin, "bottoms up" and so we all had to drink. I handle my liquor well but even I was getting a little drunk. Then the Swiss man wanted to talk to Mr. Wong's acquaintance alone, though they had some trouble communicating, and when they came back they were both very angry.
After that a government man came to visit Mr. Wong. He paid an extra bribe but the government man wanted more.
I did not want to give Mr. Wong some of my money. Let him hatch his own chicks.
Pornography has grown more popular in Shanghai but I find I do not like it much. I am a little embarrassed by it, but that is not why I do not like it. I do not know why I do not like it.
A lover of mine wanted to watch it with me one time and I agreed, but it made me bored. That and something else. I know I am a bit unusual, but I am good with people. Something bothered me about the pornography, not because I found it obscene or disgusting. The people were handsome and it was well photographed. Again it had something to do with time.
I wonder what Confucius would say about pornography videos. Some young people say Confucius was a "tight ass," but he understood business, like I do. I wish I could meet him. But I know I am foolish.
Today I decided to travel. An acquaintance of mine told me prices are very low in Saigon for many things, and I have decided to fly there. I have never been to Vietnam. I thought about bringing a friend but I have decided to go alone. I have paid a young woman to watch over my two businesses while I am gone. I believe she will work hard. We will see.
I feel something about my city now. Now that I am gone for a few days part of me has started to recognize what it is.
I have read that the first silk traders began going West about three thousand years ago. I think they must have felt a little like me, eager to see what would happen, and a little afraid to leave home. I wonder if property prices went up when the silk traders started to return with their gold. They must have.
I think the light is changing. Is that possible? I remember the quality of the light when I was a girl. It does not seem the same to me now. Perhaps in Saigon I will buy a paintbrush.
There are some things you can only say in your mind. Have you felt this way before? I know I am a practical person, as I should be. I work hard. But why would this be, if I am right? How can light change? Do not tell me I do not remember it correctly. I remember. It is getting bluer.
In Saigon I cannot breathe. I do not like some of the smells. It smells different. Now I am the foreigner. I stay in a small hotel that was recommended to me. Inside I feel a bit like a little girl again. I want to run down the street, excited. But I walk.
Some of my girlfriends are cynical now. They talk a big game. But I remember how lucky we are. My ancestors would have had to ride a horse for weeks to reach Saigon. And some Chinese people still travel this way.
"I have many good paintbrushes," says the merchant, in English.
"That one," I tell him. I do not even haggle. Its handle is made of bone.
Title graphic: "Bluer" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2013.