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.