All Stories, General Fiction

The Bund by Richard Yu

There were many things in life that Oscar did not comprehend. Miro, for one, totally baffled him. When it comes to abstract painting, he would readily relegate that area of expertise to his wife. Afterall, she had attended art school for a big part of her life, so she was supposedly an art connoisseur as well as an artist herself. What puzzled Oscar was why she bothered to learn all those advanced techniques just so to paint like a five-year-old. “You should find a job teaching kindergarteners how to paint,” Oscar would snipe. Naturally, his wife ignored his snide remarks. Just recently, she had bid on a sketch by Miro for as much as five years his salary, he being a CEO of a high-tech firm that supplied chips for the space shuttle. Had he run across such a sketch in a flea market, he wouldn’t have paid more than the price of a can of sardines for it, if only for the scrap value of the frame and mat.

With a new traffic pattern in the area, Oscar seldom needed to take the Nanpu Bridge anymore. Yet the bridge still held nostalgic meaning for him. The name of the bridge, hanging on a banner high up on its arch, was inscribed personally by Deng Xiaoping. Even though he was purged late in his political career, Deng, whose pragmatism was largely responsible for the modernization of China, remained a hero to Oscar.

To honor his idol, Oscar had made it a habit to come up with a new resolution every time he crossed this special bridge. We must push forward with every decision we make. The last time he did that, he decided it was time to get rid of a long-time friend who had become toxic to the company. The decision troubled him as they had been close childhood friends. He knew it was the right decision though, and he never came to regret it.

Today, his resolution was a totally different one. He wanted to take a stroll with his wife on the Bund. It may sound a bit hum-drum.  It certainly paled in comparison to his other Nanpu decisions. But this was not the case for Oscar. He could call for a meeting at any time and his subordinates would drop everything to come to his immediate attention. His wife, however, was hard to book. She was always busy, if not with her painting, then with meeting dealers, or having tea with her artist friends. Today, Oscar called her personally, not through his secretary, as soon as he made his way across the Nanpu Bridge.

Wen-Ling was flabbergasted. This was so unlike the husband she knew.

 “Did something happen?” she asked, expecting him to spill some bad news.

 “Nothing. I’m just thinking that we can do something together this evening.”

 “You mean you’re calling me on the phone because you want to do something with me tonight?”

 “Yeah, I thought we should spend some time together.”

 “Hold on.”

Wen-Ling switched over to her appointment app to check.

 “You’re in luck. Margaret just called off her dinner with me.”

 “Okay, then. I’ll pick you up at home around 6:30.”

 “What’s the occasion?” Wen-Ling was going to ask, but Oscar had already hung up.

Oscar had totally forgotten what it was like to be out on a date. In fact, he did not know if he had ever gone on one. He and Wen-Ling had met under quite unusual circumstances, which he thought did not qualify as a date. Oscar had been looking to acquire some art work for his newly expanded office. Usually, he would have delegated this kind of work to one of his employees. But this art exhibit had the promise of being extraordinary, as it was held in a lighthouse. His advisor urged him to go, if just for the experience of it. Reluctantly, he left work at the last minute, trusting that the GPS would lead him to this out-of-the-way location, leaving him about an hour to browse the gallery. But the weather turned stormy and his GPS had led him to a deadend in the middle of nowhere. By the time he arrived at the lighthouse, it was so close to closing time that the guard almost did not let him in. Art was never Oscar’s cup of tea, modern art in particular. It came as a pleasant surprise when he squeezed through the tiny door of the lighthouse and was greeted by a towering mobile hanging from the top of this multi-story structure. Visitors could take their time to inspect this gigantic creation as they ascended the spiral staircase to the top level, where more works were on display. If there was one piece of artwork he would like to possess, this would be it. Despite its resemblance in size and scale to Miro’s mobile, which Oscar remembered seeing at the National Gallery, this one retained its own merits. Oscar thought it was too bad that his office didn’t have a vaulted ceiling tall enough to accommodate it.

The rest of the exhibition turned out to be quite blasé. The paintings at the top were nothing special and not up to par with what the inviting mobile had promised. Oscar was about to leave without chatting with the creator when a woman barged in through the narrow entrance, the same door he was trying to squeeze through to get out. She was barefoot and apparently soaked through and through. He tried to dodge this walking water bomb, but it was too late. He felt as if the woman was trying to use him as a towel to dry off her wet hair.

“Excuse me!”

She yelled out a delayed apology.

The woman behind her helped her to explain.

“I told her not to get too close to the reef. She wouldn’t listen. She almost got swept away by a wave. She was lucky to have lost only her shoes.”

Oscar was confounded, wondering how he could get out of this situation without catching a cold from all the splishing and splashing.

“We need a nice gentleman to give Wen-Ling a ride home.”

The woman made a plea to anyone around her who would listen. While the question was not directed at Oscar, there was no one else around when Oscar looked over his shoulders to check.

“You can’t possibly let a woman soaked to her skin, left shoeless, to find her way home from a lighthouse on her own.”

Wen-Ling’s friend urged Oscar on. That was how Oscar and Wen-Ling met. They ended up that evening in the living room of Oscar’s penthouse apartment, drying out their clothes, both his and hers, in front of his fireplace, a glass of Courvoisier in their hands. That was Oscar’s only experience with love, if one could call it that.

Oscar didn’t really have a plan for his night out with Wen-Ling, since he had never gone on a date before, he had no idea what he was supposed to do. He was as clueless as he was years ago, like getting himself quite lost at the promontory, and discomfited like a neophyte at modern art. To make matters worse, they were both at home to start with. It gave Oscar no chance to warm up, to ease himself into the dating ritual. He decided to call a cab.

“Where are you going?” asked the cab driver when he arrived to pick them up.

“Take us to the Bund.”

Oscar stuck to his general plan.

“Which part?”

Oscar had no idea.

“Just take us to where people go for walks.”

The driver dropped them off at a convenient point and told them to walk toward the river and they would come upon the Bund. Oscar followed the driver’s directions, and when they got to the outer bank they were right across from the Shanghai Tower. The Financial Building and the rocket-shaped Oriental Pearl were just a little farther down. Many pedestrians were like them, taking a relaxing stroll and appreciating the Pudong skyline. Cameras clicked. Some flashes went off, even at that time of day, pictures would come out more natural without them. Tour group operators raised their flags high into the air to gather their members. Just a short distance ahead, a big crowd had gathered. Some street performers must be putting on a good show.

“Hurry, let’s not miss out on anything fun.”

Wen-Ling dragged Oscar along as she quickly burrowed through the crowd that had gathered around whatever was the center of attention. When they made their way to the front, they saw a young woman, dressed in a plain kimono, sitting serenely on a mat. A cameraman pointed his camera at her. Oscar thought that the crew must be shooting a commercial, but their equipment was kind of amateurish. The woman had no makeup on, her face looked rather pale. You won’t call her beautiful, but you couldn’t take your eyes off her either. The woman was obviously trying to focus and block out the stares from the crowd. Once she readied herself, she calmly bared her chest and removed the sword from a sheath in front of her.

“Call the police! She’s going to commit seppuku!”  Wen-Ling screamed. Oscar hushed her and directed her attention to the two uniformed policemen who were already among the crowd.

“The police are here,” Oscar said, trying to calm Wen-Ling.

Wen-Ling could tell from the woman’s eyes that she was already gone.

“Someone, do something!”

Wen-Ling screamed, jumping up and down, but nobody in the crowd seemed to care. Everyone must be mesmerized or too shocked to intercede. The woman plunged the knife into her belly, uttering a low animal grunt. Blood oozed out. Her companion quickly lopped off her head with a samurai sword as soon as she produced her intestines from the opening. At that sight, the crowd screamed and scattered in different directions.

Wen-Ling led the way. She wanted to get as far away from the scene as possible. She did not slow down until they reached the People’s Square, where she felt a little safer.

“Let’s have some food,” Oscar suggested.

“How can you eat anything after seeing that horrible sight?”

Wen-Ling protested, still unnerved from the spectacle.

“It was a staged performance,” Oscar said, as he led Wen-Ling into a nearby cafe. He ordered chamomile tea to calm Wen-Ling,s nerves. They didn’t speak for quite a while. Then suddenly, Wen-Ling asked a question.

“Do you know that this is the most beautiful evening we have had for a while?”

“I certainly hope so.”

“But doesn’t it worry you that the woman may die?”

“That’s not the concern of the artist.”

“How can you be so sure? Didn’t you see the pain in the woman’s face?”

“The pain is what makes the act beautiful.” 

After a moment’s reflection, Oscar added, “I think I understand Miro much better now.”

 “Huh? What are you talking about?”

Two months later, a small collection of Miro’s sketches hung on the walls in Oscar’s office. He thought seriously about buying the mobile from the lighthouse artist, but instead, after a week long of hard contemplation, he finalized divorce papers with Wen-Ling. It was a decision he had made one day while crossing the Nanpu Bridge. As for the mobile, there just was not enough space to accommodate it.

Too bad, he thought, sometimes things are just not meant to be.

Richard Yu

Pyzhou, GFDL http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html, via Wikimedia Commons

3 thoughts on “The Bund by Richard Yu”

  1. Hi Richard,
    Most art leaves me confused but I take out of it what I see / want. This may not be what I’m supposed to and maybe I’m supposed to get the meaning, but I get out of it what I do. Some I like, some I don’t.
    Maybe if we knew about this artists ethos then all of this would make some sense. Maybe there is a parallel between his work and this story. But I haven’t got a Scooby!!
    However I enjoyed this immensely!!
    It was very matter-of-fact. There was a melancholy and a sadness in it that I don’t understand why I felt this way but I loved it!!
    Hugh.

    Like

  2. I enjoyed this story a lot, it’s quite complex, with many layers. The surreal imagery, art vs. reality, the contrast between the man and his wife, how they met, and the Asperger like nature of the protagonist absorbed me into the story.

    Like

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