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Beijing Jail part 1 (a short novel based on a true story)

Updated on January 23, 2017

I

The city is paralyzed in the kef of miasmal smog. Roc lies in bed in his 10-square-meter rental room, casts an eye on the gray, suffocating sky outside of the window, and picks up his phone. A month before the Spring Festival, Roc, like everyone else who is not from the city, lays his hope on a returning trip back home, where the sky is blue and the water is clear.

“Hey Dad,” greets Roc. “I just bought my train tickets. I’m coming home with my friends soon. On January 10th. Would you come and pick us up at the train station?”

The phone call is short. He hangs up, puts the phone next to his pillow, and yawns with relief. He has been excited to plan this trip with Baron and Little Water, his closest friends. First taking them to camp at Daluo Mountain near his home, and then going on a road trip around the southern beachfront of Zhejiang, breathing fresh air, drinking clean water. He would take Little Water to his dance studio and have her DJ there. They would throw a few hip-hop parties around the time of the Chinese New Year. He would sit on stage at his friend’s bar, drinking tea while freestyling about his life. Baron and Little Water would laugh and clap at his funny, satirical and often-surprising rhymes, and dance with rest of the audience, like every time they go out together since they met.

Little Water sits at the desk in the room. She found a large piece of discarded ceramic tile in the hallway a few days ago, and she is painting an abstract picture on it. River flowing upwards from four globes of fire tied together by a symbol of Alpha-Omega. Patterned leaves. Winged fairies with long black hair and golden skin. She is listening to Flying Lotus’ new album You’re Dead, which she will be sampling when she DJs, as she told Roc. The only concern she has lately is a gender-specific one. She has been hanging out too much with these two guys, and it makes her crave the soft but powerful warmth of sisterhood she used to have before she moved to the city. She feels unbalanced.

Little Water works on her painting as Roc reads on his phone in bed. Besides passing a joint to each other, they are both concentrated in comfortable silence, listening to the minimal electronic drumbeat of Flying Lotus that sounds like water drops. The afternoon sun behind heavy layers of smog turns the sky grayish orange, as if the world is in its end times.

Someone knocks on the apartment door. Roc pays no attention. He did not order lunch for delivery or expect a package. He lies on bed, hears his roommate walking out of his room and opening the door. Footsteps. Footsteps of multiple people. Voices in the tone of inquiry. Brief inaudible conversation with Roc’s roommate.

Little Water is painting waves of purple around the globes of fire on the tile. As she hears the sound outside, she has a second of curiosity of who have just arrived the apartment. She turns around and looks at Roc. He shows no response.

Someone knocks on Roc’s door. It is a solid, regular knock, neither hesitant nor aggressive. Little Water thought it might be the apartment manager bringing maintenance guys to check on the heater. Who else it might be?

Roc gets up, waltzes to the door and opens it without asking who is it.

The door opens.

The police!

Time freezes at that moment. Little Water holds the brush in her hand dipped in purple. She hears no sound, just a long, sharp buzz coming from the inside of her head. Every time she recalls that moment, she keeps thinking that it was not real. It was an illusion. She is, from then to now, in a dream.

The police make Roc stand against the wall outside of his room. Three police officers surround him.

“Do you know why we are here?” One police asks in a harsh tone.

Roc hesitates for a second. Then he says yes.

“Why? Say it.”

“Weed,” Roc’s voice changes into a nervous tone affected by accelerated heartbeat.

“Show me the drug you have in your room,” command the police.

Roc points to his top drawer, where the police find less than a gram of marijuana. Roc and Little Water had almost finished all the herbs, and fortunately they hadn't gotten any more.

Little Water stays in the room watched by one police officer. From her angle, all she could see is Roc leaning on the wall, lowering his head in helpless submission. He looks like a different person under the killing gaze of these willfully mind-blind henchmen. He looks beaten down.

One police officer gets into the room and keeps searching around on the desk and other drawers. Nothing. Then the police tell Roc and Little Water to get ready to go to the police station. Roc walks back into the room, sits on the brim of the bed with Little Water, putting on their socks and shoes together. The police watch them in silence. Their daily ritual turns into an awkward exhibition.

They were separated at the apartment door. Two police take Little Water to their car, and Roc, with the other three, rides another. This separation is a crucial turn of events. It is the liminal, the vulnerable, gray, ritualistic moment that transitions their lives into a different direction. Inside the door, they have been planning for a cheerful future together where their lives intertwine. The pre-future planning brings vision that allows them to momentarily time-travel to places they haven’t yet arrived. They wait. They hope. They were not trapped in the tiny, cluttered rental room. They were everywhere at once across space and time.

Outside the door cold wind blows. Their bond is forced to break. They both know all the planning is tuning into pure imagination that holds no steady ground. The route of the future is interrupted by a sudden roadblock, like a software bug that alters everything. For some reason, Little Water feels this is fate more than an accident. They are meant to be hijacked into the postliminal where Roc’s southern beachfront, along with their hope for the future, turn into vain idealism. And the alternative, apparently, is a worst-case scenario. What does it mean? For each person, and for the two of them?

During the 24-hour stay at the police station, Roc and Little Water were put in two adjacent rooms separated by a thick wall. Chatty security guards watch them from outside. The police interrogate them separately three times. How long have you been doing drugs? How many times do you do this with each other? And with how many people other than you two? How do you smoke marijuana? How long have you known each other? Who buys? Where do you get the drug? Do you sell? Little Water is open about her own smoking habit as she keeps explaining to the police that marijuana is not a drug. She talks about the history of marijuana and the banning of it, its influence to the brain, its medicinal value, and its usage in ancient cultures. The police are surprised at her knowledge, yet, they tell her, “Even if I know I’m doing something wrong, I still have to do it, because it is Chinese law.”

For hours in the police station, Little Water lies on a wooden bench in the room where she waits for interrogation. The white, violent beam of incandescent light beats down on her at all times, so she covers her eyes with a green Tibetan scarf that she traded a few days ago at an end-of-year party she went to with Roc. The smell of toilet is in the air. The AC is not working properly and it is too cold. Red fingerprints spread the wall as people wipe their hands on it. A blood stain hangs on the corner of the wall, discolored. Black hair is scattered on the floor. Someone carved “Police Bullshit” on the windowsill. This room must be filled with violence, sadness and madness. A haunted room it is, thinks Little Water. As she lies there, images of every detail with Roc on the day they were arrested flash in her head. She holds herself tightly to keep warm, and drifts to sleep.

The last time she sees Roc is in the next morning. He is sent back to the interrogation waiting room from somewhere else, under escort, in handcuffs. He walks pass her room, and in that brief passing he says her name in a clear and wistful voice. She wakes up immediately, takes off the scarf on her eyes and gets up, walking to the door to look for him. The guards stop her. She walks back to the bench. She knows Roc is behind her in the other room. She hears a harsh knock on the wall, three times – it is Roc trying to communicate to her. She hits the wall back three times. Now she is engulfed in tremendous sadness. “Little Water,” calls Roc just now. The voice echoes in her head. She gets up and stretches. She lies back down. Under the scarf her eyes are filled with tears. And it is dark so she pretends she is somewhere else. She starts to sing, first softly, then loud and clear. Old Pirates, yes, they rob I / Sold I to the merchant ships / Minutes after they took I / from the bottomless pit / But my hand was made strong / by the hand of the Almighty...

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