July Has Nothing to Do with Gods
I stole something of yours. This is the first thing he hears when he sits down. Children squeal as they run through the floor fountain that separates L—this shabby British pub—and the Tung Chung MTR station. “I stole something of yours,” she says. “I’m sorry, but I can’t say I regret it.” This humid Friday evening in Tung Chung doesn’t care about her confession. Others on the patio continue to chat. A group of cabin attendants, bros with loose neckties and perfectly coiffed hair, order another round of beer. “It’s like a worm appeared inside my heart,” she continues. “It’s diving deeper every second, trying to get to the lowest point. But it doesn’t know that my heart has no bottom. Inside my bottomless heart is a worm that keeps sinking. I know the only way to get rid of this feeling is to confess to you that I stole something of yours.”
She didn’t pick up his calls for an entire month. She spent June on her own. In the evenings, after work, she laid on her couch, scrolling through footage of the fights that broke out between protestors and the police, of the thousands of people, umbrellas in hand, marching through the streets of Hong Kong Island. Students in gas masks running away from tear gas.
When June ends, they meet here, at L.
“I understand if you’re mad,” she says. “So, I’ll give you a deadline.”
A deadline? The word ‘deadline’ strikes him as odd. Why is this word allowed to combine time, space, life, action, and urgency into one clear idea so naturally? The word almost doesn’t make sense to him. He learned English as a second language; to study abroad he prepared for the IELTS exam by listening to hundreds of speeches by past American Presidents. The IELTS test was expensive, so he studied hard, listened to the presidents’ voices at night when he slept, and, when he couldn’t sleep, he played Obama’s speeches in the background as he browsed through videos on Pornhub. Many times, he ejaculated to videos of strangers fucking to the deep yet soothing voice of the 44th U.S. President. He passed the stupid test, which is designed not so much to teach people a new language but to make money; some marks were taken off, though, because he paused too much in the middle of his sentences.
“I’ll be here next week,” she continues. “You can tell me if you want to continue seeing each other then. And don’t try to contact me in the meantime. I won’t respond.”
Cold silence fills the warm July air. He stares at the children, running around in the floor fountain. She was one of them once, an international-school student.
She places three one-hundred-dollar bills on the table and walks away.
Chinese public-school kids do not play in the fountain after school; they play the piano. He was a public-school kid, but he sucked at playing the piano. He could run, though. He represented his school in a number of competitions as a long-distance runner, even won some awards. Mindlessly racing forward was what he was good at, but his parents didn’t care. Desperate for their son to be proficient with a European classical instrument so that they could look like competent parents to their friends, they had him learn the French horn, which required strong tongue movements but very little fingering.
He sits on the toilet again—still, he cannot shit. This has never happened to him. He’s twenty-six, always had healthy bowel movements. He hasn’t worked for almost six months. In his free time, he exercises regularly and maintains a balanced diet.
Giving up, he starts going through the stuff in his bedroom: the stash of weed tucked under the mattress, the stack of cash in the mooncake box in his underwear drawer, and the orange butt plug under his bed are all where they’re supposed to be. He checks the login history on all his social media accounts—nothing unusual. Not that he has a high limit on that HSBC VISA card of his—he’s unemployed, and she, though he doesn’t know what her job is, lives in a penthouse. Nonetheless, he quickly goes through his credit card history anyway—no suspicious transactions either.
He sits back on the toilet.
‘Constipation’ sounds a little like ‘simulation,’ which reminds him of the word ‘assimilation,’ and the word ‘assimilation’ makes him think about the sex he’s been having with her for the past two months. She’s always the one who initiates, who comes over to his place, knowing exactly what she wants. He enjoys how little control he has when she’s on top, riding him, enjoying herself. “You’re a good boy,” she says, putting a blindfold on him and tying his arms to the bed. She often slaps him and even chokes him without warning. This lack of agency is the freedom he actively invites.
He’s hard. Constipation, arousal, confusion, and a vague sense of loss are all coming together naturally.
‘便秘’ (biàn bì) is ‘constipation’; ‘便’ on its own, means ‘easy,’ ‘informal,’ ‘ordinary,’ and ‘comfort.’ ‘秘,’ on the other hand, means ‘secret.’ The words ‘便秘’ describe this moment better than any English word he knows.
He stands up and ejaculates into some toilet paper.
Despite being 便秘, he wakes up the next morning feeling extremely hungry and heads to the wet market downstairs for some steamed buns. It is early, not even 7 a.m., but standing in line are cabin attendants, waiting to get a decent breakfast before departing the city.
Not too long ago, he was one of them, a cabin crew member. Relatively tall and capable of speaking good English, he was hired by Cathay Pacific right after graduating from UBC with an economics degree. He flew back and forth between Hong Kong and Vancouver for two years before losing his job due to flights being cancelled during a recent pandemic.
“What do you like most about flying?” This is the first question she asked him when they met. “Your profile said you work for Cathay.”
After filling his stomach with siu mai and barbecue pork buns, he decides that he needs some fruit to deal with his indigestion.
Central, though only twenty-odd minutes away by MTR, feels distant through the screen. For cabin attendants, all images of the outside world during the twelve-hour flight exist only on small TV screens that play trashy Hollywood movies in front of passengers. The screen in front of his treadmill has the word ‘live’ in the top right-hand corner. Protesters are occupying one of Central’s main streets.
He looks outside. Tung Chung is perfectly quiet.
The MTR station downstairs is completely destroyed. Unable to shit, he goes for a late-night run, only to find police officers, in all-black riot gear, patrolling the scene. No protestors. The entrance gates are broken, glass is scattered all over the ground, and the ticket machines are smashed to shambles. His stomach starts growling. The blood in his body turns cold. He starts walking away from the station, through the pedestrian tunnels and underground biking lanes, all the way to the riverside, where the Ngong Ping 360 gondola lifts that take tourists to the Tian Tan Buddha during the day hang above the river. Staring up at the lifts, he no longer feels like he’s in Tung Chung, but inside a larger organism, that all of the stillness that surrounds him is part of a system giving mobility to something larger. But what that thing is, he cannot tell.
“I stole something from you,” she said.
When a person is born, the brain starts comprehending the world by telling itself stories. The adult brain will sometimes convert to religion because, to the brain, religion works the same as childhood memories do. Take Christianity. The opening book of the Bible—Genesis—tells a story that explains how the world came to be—using—not logic—but narratives derived from a number of religions in the same geographic area that perpetuate a set of ideologies. Since narratives in religious texts are stories used to promote a set of ideas, for those who were raised Christian, narratives in the Bible become a set of principles through which to interpret the world. But the human brain is frail, and even for those who are not religious, sometimes in adulthood it becomes so tired that it wants to reboot, returning briefly to the point of its childhood memories, its basic principles. At these moments, religions (and sometimes cults) hack in.
Running will disrupt the workings of this larger thing.
He runs along the riverbank, passes by an Indian restaurant near the pier. His stomach is bloated. His back is sweaty. But breathing becomes easier as he runs. He runs around a large square surrounded by white, concrete, private apartment buildings with green window frames. In the centre of the empty square is an open area where children play during the day. Surrounding this play area are shops: a 7Eleven, a small drugstore, a German restaurant, a supermarket, a Thai restaurant, a kindergarten, and a hair salon. He runs around the circle, passing each shop four times, and decides to enter the park next to the Tung Chung Novotel, where pilots and cabin crews stay during their time in Hong Kong. He runs past a pagoda where the elderly practice Tai Chi in the morning. He doesn’t stop. Lights in the buildings that surround him start to turn on. Thousands of eyes from the window might be watching him as he sprints through the park, but he doesn’t care. So what? Let them watch. He starts racing towards the airport.
It’s as if a worm appeared in my heart, she said to him. What did she steal? Thinking about this makes everything around him become unfamiliar. He sees reality’s interface flash across his eyes, quickly refreshing, contrasting into a set of fundamental principles, before expanding and re-becoming the reality he is familiar with.
He returns home and shits.
The next morning, he wakes up extremely hungry. He hears the beeping of Octopus cards on his way to the wet market. The MTR station—destroyed the night before—is now in perfect condition. People with suitcases in hand and purses on their shoulders are leaving Tung Chung for Central to go to work. The ticket machines that were smashed to pieces just last night are now fully functional once again.
It’s as if, last night, a moment that belonged to another time, for a moment, randomly inserted itself into his present.
Next week at L, he asks her: if there were a machine that could simulate reality to a point where one could perceive and understand everything as reality itself, would she enter it? After a moment of silence, she tells him that yes, she would, but only if one thing about the world might be changed. What that one thing is, she does not tell.
“I’m tired,” she says. “If you’ve decided to forgive me, we’re going back to yours.”
She has handcuffs with her this time. She takes out the orange butt plug he hides under his bed.
“How did you know that was there?”
She rubs lubricant on the butt plug and starts fingering his anus and in one swift movement, inserts the butt plug. He squeals. But despite his having felt a sudden shot of pleasure, his penis remains flaccid, which has never happened to him before.
“Are you ok?” she asks.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“Are you still thinking about what I stole?”
He doesn’t answer. But the truth is that he doesn’t care about what she stole. It’s probably something that never belonged to him in the first place. All he can think about right now, lying face down on his pillow, with the butt plug still up his ass, is the Tung Chung MTR station that was completely destroyed, and the police, in riot gear, patrolling the scene. The same station was fully fixed and functional the morning after. He tries to stop thinking about the station, but Tian Tan Buddha sits above him, watching, in the mountains above Tung Chung, making sure that this, and not anything else, is all he can think about at this moment.
“Don’t be sorry,” she says. She pulls out the butt plug and tosses it aside. For a while, they lie there in silence.
“I want to live in a world that is completely secular,” she says. “If that’s not possible, I need to make sure that at the very least, Christianity does not exist.” She sighs. “I think raising your child religious is a form of child abuse. Why are we allowed to pressure an immature mind to live in-line with a set of beliefs without consent?”
She opens the blinds next to the bed. In some of the apartments nearby, people are watching TV. Lights from their TV screens flicker.
“If I continue living in this world,” she continues, “my existence will be completely reliant on me being in opposition to the things I hate. It’s tiring.”
They lie down. The MTR station downstairs with its red and white logo shines brightly through the window, into the bedroom, and onto their faces.
“Let’s not consider it a religion,” he says.
“What do you mean?”
“I learned this recently. Genesis has nothing to do with God. It is just a description of a childhood memory, a detailed account of a mind trying to understand and comprehend components the world is made up of, things like light and darkness, sky and ground, the names of plants and animals, and so on. It has nothing to do with the creation of the earth. It’s a description of a learning curve, structures that a mind is inventing to make sense of how things in the world work.”
He is right. Genesis has nothing to do with Gods. It is a description of a mind, telling itself a story, creating narrative structures—memories—to understand a world that is already there.
The orange butt plug sits next to the window. Lights from television screens of apartments nearby continue to shine through. A plane takes off.