Shanghai, September 2120
Nahum pushed the decrepit door leading into a colorless hall dubiously decorated by a scabrous, dimly black statue of Qin Zhiguo, the celebrated Chairman of the last century who had heralded the then-new political current of the Great Heavenly Isolation. Nahum cast a weary glance at the statue. Chairman Qin did not react to that.
“Room 714, please,” Nahum told the receptionist, a middle-aged local woman covered by fake golden retriever curls, who was proudly donning a T-shirt with the English phrase Kiss Me Hard engraved in Gothic script.
The receptionist flashed several nicotine-stained teeth at him.
“Last time, eh?” she said, handing him the key and trying hard to suppress the pitying notes in her voice.
“Something like that,” Nahum mumbled, fumbling with his pockets to make some room for the key amidst a few hundred-renminbi coins and an illegal outdated iDevice he’d stubbornly refused to stick onto his temple like everyone else.
The receptionist nodded with the slightly malicious compassion peculiar to the female Shanghainese.
“Back to Laowaiguo it is, then,” she said, then added with genuine understanding, using the local language: “Nong ve zi ngagonin, nong zi zangheinin ... eeeehh!“
Nahum smiled and replied in Mandarin with good-natured bitterness: “Tell this to the government.”
He took the elevator to the seventh floor and walked through a circular corridor, relentlessly pursued by the sticky odor of urine emanating from both toilets. He unlocked the door to Room 714 and entered. Inside, between a heap of broken iDevices and a pile of conspicuous synthetic Party-approved condoms to be distributed among the students in the next semester, he found what he was looking for: a small piece of wood with a strange symbol painted on it – a crude drawing of a fish.
“You aren’t a foreigner, you are Shanghainese.“
Those were the words of the receptionist with the tacky hair. And Nahum once again felt the familiar pangs in his chest. He had spent twenty years in Shanghai, watching the magical city gradually succumb to the merciless, icy tidal wave of the Great Heavenly Isolation. The Middle Land had been treating laowais benevolently, with mildly condescending magnanimity, up until the threat had become impossible to ignore any longer, undermining the pillars of Asian rigid social philosophy with its dynamic, wild growth: Christianity. Outlawed in the United States of Democratic West due to its conflicts with the state-sanctioned agnosticism, the old faith had risen from the ashes, thriven in the most energetic and vital of the world’s three superpowers. By the year 2090, Christians had constituted forty percent of China’s population – about a third of it consisting of Westerners unable to practice their religion openly in their progressive, modernized homeland.
Then the inevitable happened. The Caliphate had its own faith, harmoniously interwoven with politics - as it had always been the case with that religion ever since its founder had killed and conquered and spread the word of a god who would never sacrifice himself. The USDW reveled in the decadence of global acceptance - undoubtedly bizarre, yet of its own invention, born long ago in sunlit cities where the search for truth had resulted in seeking oneself and living in barrels, orgies and self-mutilation, and eventually complete indifference equally cold in its Epicurean or Stoic outfits. The rulers of the Middle Land, on the other hand, knew that the source of its incredible success was something alien, something weird, something that ran contrary to anything they’d ever deem healthy or even appropriate.
Swearing full allegiance to the Party did not help. The Christianity of those who did that soon disintegrated, dissolved into the familiar tenets of Asian beehive-building. One cannot serve two masters – the truth of those words rang in the ears of every Chinese Christian. Social pressure was relentless, old superstitions excavated and promoted with ferocity, patriotism becoming denser and darker. Qin Zhiguo launched The Great Heavenly Isolation, thus officially endorsing a policy of discouraging laowai presence. A mass exodus back to the long-lost land of Laowaiguo ensued. By the year 2118, only a few highly valued foreign Christian specialists remained in the country. Two years later, Nahum Horshan, Professor for Laowai Literature at East China Normal University, born 2076 in Jerusalem, non-smoking, divorced, no outstanding diseases, was requested to leave China, effective immediately.
Nahum rode the 926 magnetic bus, famous for having inspired an eponymous tune by the legendary laowai jazz musician Archie Bloedtraum. The bus smelled of indifference and stinky tofu. Old Shanghainese ladies were sticking their elbows hard into Nahum’s solar plexus in a coordinated battle for coveted seats.
A young, attractive local woman worked her way through a couple of overweight rosy-cheeked kids, going straight up to Nahum.
“Hey,” she said defiantly.
He recognized her instantly.
“Harmony,” he said.
“Asshole,” she said.
Two or three old men were listening to their conversation with vigorous attention.
“Can I see my son?” Nahum asked.
“Over my dead body,” Harmony said.
Nahum thought this through.
“Look,” he said with an expressive, theatrical sigh. “I was a lousy husband. We both know that. But I want to see my son. Our son. He needs a father –”
“He has a father,” she interrupted.
“Stepfather,” Nahum said. “It’s not the same.”
“You’re right, it’s not the same. It’s better. He is better. He is a better person than you. Much better.”
“You just have to rub it in, don’t you?” Nahum said. “That’s what you do, rub stuff in. You’ve always been so good at that. Soooo good!”
“Oh yeah? And you know what you’ve always been good at?”
“No, I don’t! Please enlighten me, Your Highness!”
“At being an asshole!”
“Oh yeah? Really? That’s what you think?”
“That’s what I know, and you want to know how I know? Because you are an asshole, that’s how!”
“I can see why you guys aren’t married anymore,” the driver said amicably.
“Right, ‘cause you can’t keep being married to an –”
“An asshole, yes, I got it! Anus! Butt cavity! Pelvic orifice!! Fissure in the derriere!!!”
They went quiet for a few seconds. Old Shanghainese people around them were readily gossiping with seraphic smiles on their kindly faces.
“Listen,” Nahum said softly. “You are right, okay? I did some bad shit. Everybody do bad shit. You know why? Because we are humans. And humans do bad shit. You can deny anything, deny any interpretation of any fact, any ideology, any philosophy or religion, but you can’t deny a simple fact: everybody do bad shit. And those who say they don’t, those who think they’re better than others ... Well ... They are mistaken. And this mistake is going to cost them some day.”
“That’s bullshit,” Harmony said sternly. “You did bad stuff, and now you’re trying to justify it by saying everyone is doing it. That’s just not true. I was never as moody and as crazy as you are. And most importantly, I didn’t cheat on you!”
“You did,” Nahum said quietly.
“You did,” he continued, as they both got off the bus at the Old Northern Gate, strangely intimate in their conversation and almost unaware of their surroundings. “I know about your affair. You forgot to desynchronize your iDevice, see? So I know. We both screwed up, sweetheart. We both did. Only I admitted it right away and everybody judged me, while you hid it, so that deep down you’d still think you were better than me.”
“And you,” she said with passionate anger, turning her face to him, “by saying what you just said, don’t you think that you are better than me? Because you are oh so honest, while I’m a bloody hypocrite? Aren’t you judging me yourself, right now? Aren’t you making yourself feel better by basking in your refined moral superiority? Come on, answer me that! Ha! I knew that. I didn’t study psychology for nothing. So who is the bigger hypocrite now?”
Nahum didn’t say anything for a while. It was getting dark. Moist, damp air pressed down by the unbearable weight of ominously gray, polluted clouds. Around them, gigantic neon signs were beckoning the forty million inhabitants of the gargantuan city to visit party-regulated bars and engage in mechanical, fast sex with young village girls from Hunan or Hebei who came to Shanghai to make a quick buck. Nahum suddenly stopped and took Harmony’s hands into his.
“Harmony,” he said warmly. “I don’t know who is the bigger hypocrite. And frankly, I don’t care. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you all this time. We all do bad things. We all lie to ourselves, invent stupid excuses and justifications, and you know why? Because we want to be right. But we can’t! We can’t be right, Harmony! See – ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are not human concepts. They are God’s concepts. If there is truth in this world, it can’t be our truth, because how can we ever find the truth when we don’t even know who we are? How can we ever change ourselves if we don’t even understand ourselves? How can we have faith in ourselves if every single damn time we think we know what is better, yet for some mystical reason can never become truly better? That’s why I don’t want to be right. I just want to love and forgive. Can you forgive me, Harmony?”
She looked at him with slight disdain, weak and weary, just like the remnants of her love to him. She shook her head softly and took her hands away. When she spoke, her expression became firm and cold, like the pretty outlines of her homeland’s teachings, like the voice of a creature who does not crave salvation:
“That’s exactly why I don’t want my son to see you, Nahum. You are not normal. You think too much, you keep dragging mythological symbols into everyday life, you...” She shook her head again. “You need help, Nahum.”
“That’s what I was saying,” he replied hopefully.
“No!” she said aggressively. “Not help from some guy who lived over two thousand years ago! Help from professionals, okay?”
“He is the best professional of all,” he said stubbornly.
“He is dead, Nahum! That is, if he ever lived at all.”
“I’d rather doubt that I’ve ever lived at all.”
“That’s because you’re –”