Touch the city and recognize a thing of bloodshed by its unevenness.
There's a neighbourhood of old lane houses, kids running underneath canopies of electrical wiring, corners of convenience stores with a chime on the door, a restaurant that's been open for fifty years, same soup, same recipe, same guy. You can peel back the brick, peel back the generations, find the pockets of familial life here and there, a child's scooter in the rain, laundry hung to dry, sun over the low rooftops.
There's the crystal edifice of a new twelve-story mall that Zimmerman Architects built to look like a fucking peacock. Dig your nails into it, make a scar into something smooth, shiny, think about smashing it to pieces in your hands and how glass feels stuck in skin.
I knew of nothing but what I didn't have back then.
Our neighbourhood seemed like a wound from the old world, never quite healed, left behind where nothing grew. I wanted to live in one of those skyscrapers, their shadows falling over our streets day and night, glass behemoths that were the spoils of the victor.
Memory runs over my knuckles, lands in my palm.
Twenty years later, they tore down my childhood home to build a parking lot for that damn mall.
I remember it, the summer before I was six, sleep bathed in the sound of the electric fan, the taste of melon, the taste of sunlight, the dregs of life lining the windows, a languid pane of light.
Mother ran our shop, Father worked in the kitchens of Saturn City. Without school, summertime was spent with my Grandfather.
In the morning, we’d buy breakfast from a stall down the street. The old neighbours would chat idly on a flock of folding chairs. I’d greet them respectfully; they’d slip me a pocketful of sweets.
Grandfather would read poems from Shijing, and I’d learn to recite them back. He taught me to paint, to write, my stomach pressed on the cool tile, brush in hand in the hot afternoon lull. We’d watch films too, and I’d reenact scenes, blankets wrapped around my shoulders, a fork in my hands, and suddenly I was the hero of District Four.
We had westerns and comedies and grand epics from his old collection from before the war. I played the Monkey King, I played an ox-head demon, I was Guan Yu, half man, half lion.
At five, I wanted to be an actor with such conviction, little kid who was ready to eat the world whole, hungry for all the treasures he had seen his whole life on the big screen.
I remember it, our world was smaller back then.
Grandfather took me to the audition, though Mother protested, paid the application fee that we couldn't afford, held my hand on the train all the way to Saturn City.
But yea – that was me, young Potato Earnest in that Midas Gyllene film at six years old.
The new Capitol grew into the old neighbourhoods too. They tore down the east side when I was twenty, a death of eviction signs, government inspectors, big blueprints for high rises.
Deep in the debris of my career, it didn't bother me at the time. I'd moved out of that place long ago. I bought a home for my parents, bought condominiums over Saturn City, bought the life I dreamed of as a child. Life became very big, shiny, and fast. Life was crystal, life was glass and shadows.
Only Grandfather stayed in our old home.
Two years had passed since I was last there. I turned eighteen and left my childhood in the labyrinth of those alleys. The roads were emptier now, families gone, stores boarded. The neighbourhood watched the metal machines roar in the east from their windows, roaming in the land of dust and smoke.
It was summertime, it was always summertime – the electric fan was on, my Grandfather was in the kitchen. There was the smell of sugar and melon and sun deep in the brick, deep in my own bones like I was made of summers from fifteen years ago. I sat in the living room at the dining table, still the same from my childhood, sleeves rolled up to my elbows. Our house seemed smaller time after time I'd come.
"You need to come live with us in the city."
He put a plate down before me, sticky rice rolled up delicately in a swirl of red bean and honey, and sat with a book tucked under his arm. "This is the city."
"Laoye, please, you know what I mean."
"Jing Ye Si," he said instead. He opened the book, yellow cover bound with string, the same copy we used to read in the deep, quiet valleys of summer. "You used to recite that one a lot as a child."
"I don't remember it anymore." I didn't remember a lot of things.
I had all these parts to play. I was Aeneas the star, Aeneas of Saturn City, Aeneas who carved time out from the series he was filming, the event he had to attend, the interview scheduled in thirty minutes. How could I possibly remember Junhui who recited silly poems as a child?
Grandfather looked up, pushing the plate towards me. "Eat, you look skinny these days."
My phone started to ring for the third time. It was clenched in my fist. I remember thinking this conversation was so stupid, so obvious in its answer that why were we even having it?"Why aren't you listening? You should leave. You should live somewhere nicer than this shit. I've already bought you a house."
It kept ringing through the silence, on and on, and he finally closed the book. He looked at me, something soft, something weary like holding a petulant child's hand. I felt small again. I felt angry. His voice was firm.
"Huihui, this is my home. This was my father's home before the war. This is your home too. This place raised you. I will stay here."
He passed in the year before the Capitol finally tore down our neighbourhood too.
I was twenty-four. It was summer again, deep in the ruthlessness of late July, killer heat, sun to the bone. The streets were all empty this time, dilapidated and strewn with memories, the neighbours I'd known long buried or moved away.
The canopy of wires swung in the breeze. I remembered the alleys we'd play our games in, the stores we'd buy ice cream bars from for fifty cents, echoing in the sound of birds singing, perched on electrical poles, cicadas in the heatwaves. In my childhood, I had still returned year after year in the summertime, in the winter months of the lunar new year, the streets lined with people calling my name – "Aeneas, that's our boy! That's the star!"
Why did I stop coming back?
Our house was boxes now, packed and labeled, tones of sunlight and sweetness buried underneath the smell of dust. My mother cried over the phone, asked me to sort through the things because she couldn't.
Things from the bedroom, things from the kitchen, one box labeled recipes, one for books, clothes.
One with my name.
Two decades of memories, packed away. There was my first grade report card, All As I remember him saying to the neighbours, full of pride. Pressed in a photo album was a recipe for ludagun in his careful handwriting. A copy of my first movie, the silver bracelets gifted to me for my 100th day, my longevity lock, a painting of the street I made at eleven, and at the bottom, the collection of tapes he had received from his father, long ago.
At five, I played the Monkey King, I played an ox-head demon, I was Guan Yu, half man, half lion, in the living room, my grandfather my only spectator.
The yellow book, bound with string, was folded at a page. Jing Ye Si.
I had forgotten all these things.
When I was twenty-five, they tore down my childhood home, smoothed out the remnants of the war as best as they could. People scattered, people were buried between the glass skyscrapers. The city became a shiny thing very fast, so much lost in the change.
The book sits on my shelf, on the thirty-sixth floor, overlooking Saturn City. It watches the fast cars, the holographic billboards, the construction always taking place.
I played the same characters with different names, over and over again. Between takes, I thought about holding the director by the shoulders, shaking him, screaming in his face it doesn't mean anything! Half of life was media packed into the schedule, every interview like a fucking war of smiles, silver tongues trying to filch some scandal from me. Went to parties full of underhanded intentions, watched the darlings of the Capitol cry in bathrooms, feed addictions, lose another moral or two.
Everything became such a fucking chore.
I longed for summer. I longed for a story that felt like brick and bone and dirt, a scraped knee, concrete plastered with old signs peeling, narrow alleys with weeds in the cracks. I wanted to make my own movies, climbed my way to first AD, all long nights and mornings, and thought there was something to be found there, but this is Saturn City we're talking about.
This is Saturn City. I forgot.
"It's CGI, kid."
"A CGI…Snake…that talks and giggles?"
"Christ, where's the fucking intern with the coffee – listen kid, this is the script okay? That's not your job. Your job is to remember to call Axel Morrisen. He's hot these days, we'll see if he’s interested in playing Xu Xian."
"Axel. I–Okay, I've just been doing some research, and there's an opera troupe in Nine –"
"That's not in the budget. Can you please go and tell lighting that it was fucking ass on the last set? Looked worse than a club bathroom."
Touch the city and recognize bloodshed by its smoothness. Nothing is ever that perfect without loss. Peel back the clothes, peel back the skin, and look for signs of life inside me, something, somewhere, in the valley of July long ago.
I go out to the parking lot, sit in my car, and scream.