By M. M. Ehasz
The subway hurtled through the tunnel and screeched to a halt at my stop, Changshu Road Station. I glanced at my watch—6:45 p.m. Fifteen minutes would be just enough time to wind through the cold, crowded Shanghai streets and arrive home by 7 p.m. to let the plumber in. My plunger had failed to unclog the run-down toilet, and so I’d been without this essential machinery all week. The landlord finally agreed to send her handyman, who owned some special “Flange” plunger. Supposedly, the “Flange” was designed specifically to seal off a recalcitrant toilet bowl from the drain trap below, and this seal would create sufficient suction to clear out the clog.
I stuffed my Mandarin workbook into my backpack, grabbed a handrail, and swung myself up into a standing position. Poised to rush through the narrow subway doors, the hoard of passengers stood shoulder to shoulder and held its breath. After twenty seconds, a restless murmur wafted through the subway car. The doors still hadn’t opened. I stared greedily out to the platform where expectant passengers met my gaze, desperate to take my place on the train and find their own way home. Past the platform, an entire underground community buzzed with rush-hour excitement. Food vendors sold crispy potstickers and doughy pouches of vegetable baozi to hungry workers, parents forked over hard-earned cash for cheap plastic toys, and everywhere I looked, streams of people flowed by, sometimes seamlessly, other times bouncing off one another. I looked at my watch again: 6:48. The doors remained shut. I stood inches above nearly everyone on the subway, but over the sea of dark heads, I spotted another westerner. A few meters away from me, a man, very tall and very blond, hung on to a metal handrail.
“What do you think is going on?” I yelled to him.
But he looked at me with an uncomfortable smile.
“Sorry, don’t speak English.”
My backpack was sandwiched between tightly packed bodies, but I managed to unzip the main compartment with one hand and retrieve my Chinese textbook. I might as well learn some plumbing-related vocabulary if I was going to have any chance of communicating with the handyman. Maybe he would need to know how long the toilet had been clogged or if I had tried to plunge it myself. At the very least, he would need to know where the toilet was. I flipped to the vocabulary section in back. The word for toilet in Mandarin was cèsuŏ.
“Cèsuŏ, cèsuŏ,” I repeated under my breath, trying out various intonations. I wasn’t sure about the accent marks on the word but would have to nail the pronunciation to be understood. A couple of my fellow prisoners glanced up at me. I wondered if they thought I was strange for whispering the word toilet to myself or if I was saying something else entirely, something that was either shocking or offensive.
At this point, I thought I would probably make it back to the apartment just after 7 p.m. I hoped the handyman would wait. The thought of begging to use the bathroom in the restaurant across the street again made my feet feel like bricks. Last night, when I’d borrowed their bathroom, several servers had laughed openly at me. One kicked the door while I was still inside. Maybe the landlord had given the handyman a key already. I fantasized about walking into a bright, gleaming bathroom with a flawlessly flushing toilet.
My daydream splintered when an elderly man in front of me lost his balance in the throng. I watched helplessly as he flailed his arms in search of some stabilizing post. Handrails all outside his reach, my shoulder was the next best thing. There was surprising strength in the knobby fingers that wrapped around my arm, but the sudden jerk of his body weight caused me to drop the textbook. Mandarin Made Easy splayed open on the ground, far out of reach. If I squinted my eyes, I could still make out some of the vocabulary words.
Someone or maybe a few people started pushing toward the still-shut door, pressing the rest of us from behind. I felt my rib cage being squeezed by the body behind me. I turned my head over my shoulder. Loudly, in Mandarin, I told the crushing crowd, “Bù Tuī!” Everyone looked up, startled, and guilt gushed over me. This was their culture. Who was I to tell anyone to stop pushing? For all I knew, some pressure on the portal might be a good thing. In any event, we were all in this together. At that moment, the subway doors opened with a gasp, like the lungs of a swimmer who dives too deep and breaks the surface just in time. In a whoosh, the passengers surged from the compartment and bustled to their next destination, emptying the train. I stood there alone for a moment, then bent to grab my textbook and hurried out.