Excerpt from the short story collection Taiwan Tales Volume Two, now available on Amazon:
The Taipei Underground
by Ray Hecht
Jerry Lee, also known as Li Shi-huang or merely Xiao Shi to his friends, stared across the cash register station to gaze longingly at the cute girl at the shop across the hallway. She had short hair, glasses, a well-fitting T-shirt. As she carefully stocked a shelf, for a split-second their lines of sight crossed over.
Suddenly, Jerry turned away and looked at a passerby eating a sausage, all the while exaggerating the movement of his neck as he pretended that was what he was looking at all along. He immediately regretted the embarrassing instinct, but it was too late and he had no choice but to go along with the ruse.
He continued to gaze rightward, pushing himself to ignore the girl from across the hall, and found himself making a 180-degree U-turn. The motion was interrupted by a shout from his cousin, whom he usually semi-affectionately referred to as Cousin Lee.
“Jerry! Come here.”
He walked to the back of their shop, squeezing between narrow passageways of obsolete computer equipment. The gray plastic was full of dust and wonder, hiding away computer chips decades old. All of it was close to his heart, and he never tired of working in such a magical place.
“Check this out,” Cousin Lee said as he plugged a replica of a 1981 console into a 40-inch widescreen HD monitor. He was tall and gangly, taller and ganglier than even Jerry, but spoke with an obnoxious confidence. Within the confines of these walls, he was in his element. “Pretty cool, right?”
A tune began to ring through the halls, a somehow familiar but simplified melody of an animated television theme song adapted and skewered through the primitive digital ringer of 8-bit glory.
The sounds brought everyone comfort, reminding them of a time before time, that pre-millennial age that was somehow part of their ancestral genetic memory or collective unconscious.
Jerry couldn’t help but bob his head.
The menu screen was in Japanese, a language Jerry knew only vaguely, but he grabbed the controller and played along through sheer muscle memory. Before he knew it, the little trademarked sprite had hopped and bopped its way through three whole levels.
“He’s good, isn’t he?” Cousin Lee said to a browsing customer.
Jerry, in the zone, felt distracted and content.
After a quick win, he returned to the register and stole more glances. He couldn’t help wondering about the girl. With no information about her other than that she was new at the workplace, his imagination had many gaps to fill. She’d been there about a month. What had she done before? Where was she from? The boss, was he her father? Uncle?
Why was she here?
The shop across the aisle was a different kind than that of the second-hand computer game variety. It was altogether low tech, specializing in cute toys of plastic and plush. It was located between one model robot dispensary and a knockoff handbag boutique, alongside a deep chasm of specialty stores that stretched infinitely in both directions underneath the streets of the city. Not unlike cave grottos at certain Biblical archeological sites, each one carved its own unique religious iconography onto the walls of the contemporary cultural landscape.
Several hours later, Jerry was ordered to close up shop. He counted the cash, put aside receipts, and jotted down inventory.
“Make sure you go to the bank in the morning,” his cousin said and then zipped up the cash bag tight.
“Good.” As they lowered the railing to lock up the family business, both saw the shop across the aisle doing the same.
“I hate that shop,” Cousin Lee said, spitting fire and saliva. “Ever since they opened, they do all they can to steal our customers. Those video game toys, all the same characters I advertise. I spend the marketing money, and they try to reap the benefits.”
“Yeah,” Jerry muttered.
“Do they think I’m stupid? What a shame. Nobody wants to buy the originals anymore; people just steal everything online and then only buy some cheap dolls.”
“It is a shame,” Jerry added in a weak attempt at consolation.
“I know those people just make the toys themselves. I can see them sewing in the back. That’s theft of intellectual property! I ought to report them.”
“But don’t we sell emulator rigs?” Jerry asked, giving the matter some thought. “Like, the software is all downloaded online for free. And then we sell it. Isn’t that basically the same thing?”
“It’s not the same!”
Jerry offered no retort. He simply watched his cousin go in one direction and the girl go in another. If only he could ditch him and find a way to talk to her alone. He sighed slowly as he followed behind, and resigned himself to his fate.
“Xiao Shi,” Cousin Lee said with an air of closure, “I will see you tomorrow. I think I ate something rotten, so I’m going to go to the bathroom in the mall. Don’t wait up.” It was a reasonable request, considering the caliber of restaurants available for dinners in the tunnel.
His cousin turned a corner with a slight moan, and disappeared.
With a nervous trot, Jerry made his way to the subway station.
It was a day like any other. He planned to scan his card and wait at the platform of the subway train in order to transfer once over the course of ten stations so that he could arrive at his small apartment in the outer district, and then at last go to sleep and do it all over again tomorrow.
This day, however, was slightly different. A minute before the train was due to arrive, he noticed she happened to be waiting two cars down. All alone, tapping away at her mobile phone. Heart thumping at a reckless pace, he cautiously approached her.
She half-looked up. “Hello?”
“I work across the hall from you.”
“You do?” She tore her eyes away from the phone stuffed it in her purse, and inspected him closely. A flash of recognition abruptly lit up her eyes. “Oh, it’s you. I’ve seen you around. What’s your name?”
“Li Shi-huang. Or, you can call me Jerry.”
“Everyone calls me Sha Sha,” she said. “So, uh, how do you like working in the tunnel?”
“It’s pretty good, I guess. Usually there are a lot of people window-shopping and not enough sales.”
“I know exactly what you mean.”
“Yeah.” A pause. “Where are you going now?” he asked.
“Home,” she answered, with a bluntness that he regretted hearing.
He didn’t know what to say next. “I hope you have a good night.”
“You too. I’ll see you next time.”
He smiled and was about to turn away, even finding himself on the cusp of formulating an apology for bothering her. But before he could react she interrupted his transition with a: “Hey, do you want to hang out some time?”
“That would be cool,” he blurted out.
“Let me see your phone,” she said.
They each procured their mobile devices, turned to the appropriate application, and she scanned his personalized digital code.
Silently, they both smiled and entered separate trains and waved goodbye.
Nice to meet you, he later texted in bed, along with an accompanying image of a smiling bunny rabbit.
She replied with a blobby wink.
The next day there was much back-and-forth. Instead of glances from across the chasm, the two pairs of eyes stooped downwards as the gravity of a glass screen pulled them all in to a small private world of written letters and animated pets.
I loved this character as a kid, she said, after a link to a humorous GIF of a cartoon pocket-sized monster in fierce battle.
This is my favorite one, he said as they simultaneously livestreamed a showing of a popular action-adventure strategic game.
Look at that!
I love it!!
We shall have to get together soon to eat some delicious food and listen to music…
I like strawberry ice cream, but no hamburgers.
Slowly through intermittent conversations they learned more about each other. Dreams, passions, personal histories, dietary restrictions, and various other preferences and peeves.
She learned that he was new to the city after moving the previous year, and he still spent many weekends exploring tourist spots. He learned that she was a part-time student, full of visions of design and creativity and financial independence.
They made plans to meet at a night market—one that he had never been to but had researched and assured her was vegetarian-friendly.
Not to mention, he wrote, the further away the better.
No one said it aloud, nor typed it up, but they both felt relief that there was slim chance of bumping into any family members or mutual acquaintances.
I can’t wait to be there with you. Only you.
In person, they ignored each other. Work was one world, and there they had their own separate reality. There was no need to actually speak.
It didn’t need to be spelled out.
The families wouldn’t approve.
They met in secret two weekends in a row, waiting in line at crowded food stalls shrouded in moonlight and then watching movies in dark rooms lit up by vast screens. Never in daylight, never with risk of discovery. In person they kept their words at a minimum, in contrast to the essays written by thumb.
Eventually, the power of skin touching against skin proved to be the most powerful—yet most dangerous—communication of all.
On the third date, Jerry and Sha Sha decided to risk everything by staying at a small love hotel a mere six metro stations away. It was for the most part a natural progression.
In bed, after said communication had completed, Jerry held her in his arms and felt compelled to take a dare by suggesting the logical next step. “You should come to my apartment next time. I’ll cook you some dumplings. It will be great.”
“At your home?”
“I do have to warn you that it’s a bit far, and it’s small,” he joked. “And it’s messy. But I promise I’ll clean up.”
“Well, it sounds nice, that is, but you know I live with my father, and he’s very strict.”
“Just say you’ll be visiting a friend. Or not. Come on, Sha Sha, you are old enough to do whatever you want to do.”
“Don’t pressure me. I mean, I wish I could, but just don’t think I can’t stay the night like that.”
“But, I got a new console and we could play—”
“Fine,” Jerry conceded, hopes dashed. “I understand.”
“This is happening too fast. I’m very busy with the afternoon classes and work and I barely have enough time to spend with you already,” she said, her voice shaking and quick.
“I get it. Fine then.”
“To tell you the truth…” she went on, “I don’t even know if this arrangement is really working out for me. I simply don’t know.”
“I said I understand!” Jerry shouted, surprised at his own anger.
She rolled over in the bed, turning away from him, and shut her eyes.
He said nothing.
Soon after, they got dressed and left for home.
The next day, Cousin Lee suggested that Jerry should accompany him on one of his bimonthly trips abroad. He needed new inventory. Jerry agreed.
As a last ditch effort, he later reached out to Sha Sha to see if she wanted to see him again before leaving.
Just go, she wrote, in simple and unadorned prose.
OK, he jotted.
His heart lost, he clicked send.
There was no reply.
From that day on, Jerry’s life felt like an empty shell of what came before. He spent the following week going through the motions. He went to work, he came home from work, and played some games in between. All the while the silence from his phone was deafening. Once it was a source of happiness, and now it represented cold, still death.
The heartache and loneliness came and went and became a sort of new status quo he had to get used to. Soon tickets were purchased and before he knew it the two cousins made their way to the flashy sterility of the airport, waited in many lines, and then finally flew across the clouds to a new land. It was Jerry’s first business trip.
“I have to explain something,” Cousin Lee said in hushed tones after the plane had taken off. He had a whiskey in his hand that he was drinking in a rush. “We’re going to a meeting tonight, right after we check in to the motel. It may seem tense. Don’t make a big deal about it or anything, but yakuza types are not very polite. I owe a lot of money to these people. Just let me do the talking.”
“Oh.” He had not expected to hear that. “My Japanese sucks anyway.”
Sure enough, after landing and going through the formality of customs, there was a quick booking of a small room in the heart of the city. Then Cousin Lee led the way through the most crowded landscape Jerry had ever known onwards to the top floor of a shoddy building within the electronics district. They waited in the lobby of a run-down office and Jerry had little idea of what was going on. His head still suffered from inconsistent air pressure atmospheres and he felt outside of himself. After waiting for some time, a secretary came and directed them to a boardroom.
An old man in a crumpled suit was waiting, and Cousin Lee bowed low. The old man approached, and began speaking in rapid Japanese which Jerry could not follow. Cousin Lee occasionally said some hai’s, but mostly stayed quiet. He seemed to understand.
SLAP! The old man slapped Cousin Lee square in the jaw to his surprise.
SLAP! He repeated the motion, and then Cousin Lee spent a minute parroting drawn-out sentences in clear Japanese. It sounded very apologetic to Jerry.
At last, two men came and brought out several cardboard boxes filled with dusty cartridges from previous eras, all long obsolete and very collectable. Complete with instruction booklets.
Cousin Lee signed a form, and the two cousins carried the boxes out.
There was a palpable sense of relief once the elevator began its slow trek downwards. “Thank you for accompanying me, my cousin.”
“Of course,” Jerry said. “We are family.”
Outside, Cousin Lee led the way to a shipping company. The gleaming metal of the buildings in the mid-afternoon sun almost blinded Jerry. Millions of people surrounded him at every angle—it was the most overwhelming place he had ever visited. Lights blinked and shoppers in bright clothes excitedly rushed from one place to the next, full of energy and music. The city seemed to go on forever in every direction and every dimension, from across the infinite horizon to straight up to the clouds.
He wished he had come here under different circumstances.
It was a long day. The noodles they had for dinner were delicious, but he was tired.
Back at the motel, he finally had a chance to rest and reflect upon the strange surreality of the day.
“Oh.” A thought suddenly occurred to him. “What’s the Wi-Fi password?”
He had hardly noticed the absence of the phone all day; there were too many other things to focus on. Without an international plan, the lump of circuitry in his pocket had little use.
So they looked up the Wi-Fi password, connected, and the world he left behind opened up before him.
An update loomed.
It was her.
I miss you.
Before he’d even had the chance to post any pictures.
I hope you’re well. You must be having a nice trip now, right? Pretty cool.
As his cousin slumped into unconsciousness in the narrow bed right beside him, Jerry tapped away at full-speed, elated: It’s so nice to hear from you. I wish you were here with me now. Let me tell you about my day, it’s incredible, you won’t believe it—
They texted late into the night, as Jerry ignored snores that were so close he could feel the hot breath. It was more important that he catch up with her than sleep. He felt his heart fill up with a warm substance that he hadn’t even realized was missing, and it made him smile.
The very next day, an exhausted and sleepless Jerry visited a few more places and then caught an evening flight back home. The whole thing was like a dream he could barely remember. Quick as the flutter of an insect’s wing, he came and went.
Back at the usual underground land once again, with its thoughtless routines and familiar smells, it was as if he’d never left.
Still, while he was abroad however briefly, he had made sure to buy Sha Sha the cutest stuffed animal he could find.
When they finally met again, she wasn’t disappointed.
“Thank you,” she said meekly.
They slipped away from the workplace and immediately found themselves rushing to the nearest motel, even abandoning a dinner reservation to instead make love passionately on empty stomachs.
Gasping for air after the intimate moments passed, Sha Sha coiled herself around the heat of his body. “I can’t seem to escape you,” she said. “What am I going to do?”
“Don’t think about it,” he said. “Let’s only keep on doing what we’re doing.”
That night she stayed at the motel past midnight, and as it was of the pay-by-the-hour variety he was charged extra for it. The subway system being closed, she had to take an expensive taxi ride home on the cold dark silent road—which she insisted on paying for herself. Jerry later learned she suffered an embarrassing and argumentative encounter with her family upon returning home.
I guess this is something I will need to get used to, she texted. This was followed by a near-infinite assortment of animated hearts and one big goodnight kiss.
They slept well, despite the scarce hours.
I have an idea, Jerry texted the following afternoon.
What is it?
They were both working across the hall from each other, eyes locked but mouths silent and thumbs twitching. Meanwhile Cousin Lee was publicly arguing with Sha Sha’s father over the placement of a poster.
“This is false advertising! These are my products! Mine!”
Do you have any idea how to stop the fighting? she asked.
“Get the hell out of here, you maniac!”
No, I don’t.
“Who do you think you are!?”
Then what’s your idea?
“I said get the hell out of here!”
I want to get away this weekend.
She thought about it. OK, I’m in. Let’s do it.
SLAM! Cousin Lee banged his hand against the front counter after a formal retreat, having given up on his threats of making a formal complaint to the mall’s business department. “I hate those bastards,” he said. “Stealing our customers like that. They should have no right to sell video game paraphernalia in eye distance of my shop. It’s unethical!”
“Yeah,” Jerry said, with a complete lack of conviction. “Listen, I need to take Saturday off. I’ll be busy.”
“Sure, whatever.” He answered without thought, looking away.
On Thursday, Jerry felt excited. He had become reckless enough to agree to meet Sha Sha for lunch only a couple of subway stops away. The meal of rice burgers was an anxious one, as both frequently looked over their shoulders in fear of a passing family member, but the statement implied in the decision was clear: they were to move forward in the relationship despite the bitter family rivalry.
“Let’s buy the tickets today,” Jerry said. “We’ll get out of town tomorrow night. Stay as far away as possible, on the southern tip of the island, for as many days as we can get away with.”
“That sounds great,” she said.
“The big train station is right upstairs from the mall. Are you ready to go?”
Just then, Jerry’s phone vibrated and he casually checked the first line of a message. He immediately regretted it. “My cousin. He’s asking what’s taking so long.”
“You better go back to work,” Sha Sha told him.
“Not yet. We have more to do.”
“I’ll go and buy the tickets.” She said. “No big deal.”
“Although,” she said slowly, “my money is all tied up with my domineering family. So, y’know…”
He considered the quandary, and then dipped into his bag to carve out a substantial chunk of the weekly cash deposit. (Ostensibly, the reason he was taking an extra-long lunch break was so that he could go to the bank early.) He handed her a centimeter-thin wad of crisp blue thousand-dollar notes. “Take this.”
Her eyes widened. “I don’t need that much.”
“You can keep the change, for now. I trust you.”
“Are you sure?”
“Thanks. This is going to be some holiday!”
They hugged, and parted ways soon after. One going down into the depths of the earth, and the other hovering above in promise of flight.
As soon as Jerry entered the official space of the shop, Cousin Lee laid it on him with a barrage of noise. “Where have you been? What’s been going on with you lately? You should know this is our busy day! That’s it! You don’t leave me with any other choice! You have to work this weekend.”
“What?” He barely had any time to process. “But, you said I could get a day off.”
“No way. You know we have big money troubles here.”
“You must work harder! I hired you as a favor to your mother, remember that. And if it’s even going to be worth it to pay you as an employee then I need to insist that you show you can eat bitterness.”
“Fine,” he said, not meaning it but having lost the energy to argue. “It’s fine.”
Cousin Lee smirked eerily, with the face of an eel. “The most important thing,” he calmly added, “is that we need to defeat that damn other shop. Here, start stocking the new product and then put up some of these posters in the central corridor. I want all the business!”
Jerry begrudgingly went back to work.
Friday came. The cusp of the weekend’s freedom. Jerry didn’t have the heart to tell his lover that their holiday was supposed to be cancelled. He also didn’t have the heart to actually cancel the holiday. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, but he decided to just figure it out as he went along.
He wandered within the massive main train station above, an enormous box full of levels and hidden caverns which could hide half the city’s population. Overhead, families ate fast food behind blinking digital screens. Around him, clusters of villagers and Southeast Asians and migrant workers sat on cardboard as they stared at schedules and waited for the time to pass. And beneath him, below the trains and the sprawling tunnels, people worked.
He made his way to the coffee shop on the corner, at the prearranged time in the agreed-upon meeting location, and he leaned on the wall.
A thousand clocks surrounded him at every angle, shining in digital reds and yellows and greens. Focusing on an offhand display by the westernmost ceiling, he realized that she was ten minutes late.
Wasn’t like her.
Where could she be?
Would she even come?
He thought back to the last time he looked at her soft face. Now that he was picturing it in his mind, he had to admit her expression was often unreadable…
Could it be that she was gone?
That she could have scammed him.
No. She couldn’t. Could she?
He felt so stupid.
What if he’d never see her again?
What if she left without him, and had run away forever, and—
“Hello!” he heard, and he jumped up and turned around. It was, of course, her.
They hugged and he shocked her with a full-on public kiss. Tongue to tongue. He instantly felt shame, not for the display of affection but for his previous suspicions of betrayal.
“Thanks for waiting for me,” Sha Sha said.
“Anything for you.”
“Well,” she said, grinning. “Shall we get going?”
“Let’s go,” he said with a boldness and finality that surprised him. “Let’s run away. And let’s never come back.”
She giggled. “Ha, yeah right. I wish. We have responsibilities, come on.”
“Let’s pretend to run away,” he said, not missing a beat.
Family guilt condensed around them, growing like the shadow of dusk turning to midnight.
He awaited her answer.
“Okay,” she said, after a brief moment of reflection. “Let’s pretend.”
He got his answer, and said nothing in return. He only acted. Hand in hand, they made their way to the departure station. She flashed the tickets. They were led through a pathway deep into the land, and melded with the horde of masses until there was almost nothing left but the feeling of her hand.
Even in this small land, it amazed him how much a body could disappear.
Not with a promise but with a possibility, and with a glimmer of hope, he walked away from what he was supposed to do and what he was supposed to be. He decided to worry about the consequences tomorrow and to try his best to not give them another thought.
Don’t look back, he thought to himself. Well, he added, with one last moment of consideration, Maybe not really.
Cousin Lee opened up shop by himself for the fifth day in a row. He wasn’t upset; he felt resigned to his fate.
It didn’t look like Jerry would be coming back. Oh well. Lost another one. It had happened several times over already.
Lee didn’t even feel angry about the money. He could always borrow more. It wasn’t a big deal in the grand scheme, and anyway what’s the worst that could happen?
The only thing he felt upset about was that he’d have to find another relative to be his new employee. What a waste of potential. He’d really hoped that Jerry would have stuck around longer. But there was nothing to be done about it now but call up some aunts and uncles to let them know about an exciting new business opportunity…
People were replaceable, even if money and outdated collectable cartridges were not.
Meanwhile, across the hallway, he saw a new face. Some young kid, a boy of late teenage years, helping out by putting up stuffed creatures around the shelves.
Something seemed to be missing the last few days over there. He couldn’t place what it was. But now that there was an addition, he found himself getting angry as he watched. How dare they add inventory after the week he’d had? It was unforgivable.
Before he’d allow himself to get angry, as he felt the blood beginning to boil around his forehead, he decided to distract himself by playing an old, familiar, comfortable video game. Better to put his energy into something productive.
He just needed a win.
As he faded into the levels, and lives were lost and turned to coins, he thought back on his cousin who wasn’t quite a natural with these kinds of things but did display a certain kind of talent.
He gathered momentum stage by stage, and lost himself for a few pure yet brief moments. Shops opened and shops closed. Several onlookers started to collect around his periphery, eager to watch but not to buy, and he hardly noticed at all.
Hmmm, he thought to himself, maybe Cousin Chen…