The Best Time My Heart Broke In Shanghai


It was Wednesday in Shanghai, and although sultry summer evenings have never stopped pajama-clad mahjong players from their curbside games, thankfully, the heat had for a moment loosened its stranglehold over the city. As we padded along, the wind was pressing cloth to skin and combing my hair behind me. We had just concluded dinner several blocks ago, and with each step my mind was flitting from thought to thought. Are we going back to his place? Does a tree face the wind or have its back to it? Perhaps I should not have eaten that garlic-laden eggplant.

Due to these dinner plans with this certain someone, I had taken more care than usual in costuming myself that night: a black dress and kitten heels, which admittedly and cartoonishly made me feel like Holly Golightly, to give you an idea of how my personality would collapse into a stupid compound of naïveté and anxiety in his vicinity, shedding whatever elements of character that might have afforded me some dignity.

On love and anxiety, the terrifyingly bold Anaïs Nin wrote in a letter dated February 1947 to Henry Miller, “Anxiety is love’s greatest killer. It creates the failures. It makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you… you know he will strangle you with his panic.”

Anaïs was completely off her rocker, but these words describe perfectly that unhappy flow of single-sided perception into oppressive fear: as my worries mounted, the shadow I cast on his psyche seemed only to shrivel. I was an hourglass funneling sand from one heap to another with the gravity of my anxieties. Emotional wasting was all but inevitable.

The source of my personal tumult was a leanly built British expatriate in Shanghai, who I met several years ago when I was myself an expat. Since then, we had had a confusing on-off dallying, which eventually extended to an even more perplexing adjective of country-hopping after I repatriated. We religiously avoided all conversations regarding matters of the heart, and our liaisons were at best tenuous, thinly woven from breezy banter and fond memories. Not much by the way of relationship material, but the eternal optimist — even a very neurotic one — can MacGyver fantasies out of anything.

Before heading out for dinner, I had hastily stuffed into my handbag another DVD edition of the Danish film Jagten, which we had tried unsuccessfully to watch weeks ago. One of the hazards of purchasing bootleg movies in China is that the subtitles are sometimes painfully off, the imagined result of some poor soul frantically trying to translate in real time words he’s not heard once into a language he doesn’t understand. I usually picture this fictional person sitting on a stool facing a boxy TV, alone in an abandoned warehouse and feverishly taking notes.

Whatever the case may be in the Chinese production of black-market DVDs, my companion friendship-harpooned my fantasies that night and forever: instead of inhabiting glamor, I was the same old me, with my hopes of a night spent canoodling and dissecting a thought-provoking foreign film burning a hole in my bag.

Being dumped is of course never a graceful moment, but sometimes it’s just a cosmic joke.

By the time Thursday evening rolled around, at that point I had unsuccessfully tried to power through a full day at work, and was in the middle of watching Fast & Furious 6 on the couch with my mother. My parents have been living in Shanghai for the past several years, and are my flatmates for the summer.

Earlier that morning, my mom said, “What’s the matter with you? Are you guys off again?” Her eyes were big, as they usually get when she knows she’s hitting something right on the nose.


“I knew it! Your mom’s a real sensitive lady, you know that?”


“What happened?” my dad asked from the study.

“They’re off again!”

I could hear my dad cluck at his desk.

That I had slipped in the night before hiding my face from them behind a sweep of hair was almost beautiful in a “Poetry Reading in Loserville, Population: 1” sort of way. Though when I came back home unexpectedly early, my mom had bags of potato chips ready and a whole slew of bootleg titles. FF6 was the second movie of the day.

I still had, however, two tickets to the BBC Concert Orchestra’s A Night at the Proms event at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center, and that Thursday was the ensemble’s sole Shanghai performance. With some prodding from my mother, the movie was paused and together we went.

Ride or die, right?

One of the things that sucks most about an onslaught of sadness is how muted the senses become. My faculties simply are not the same, which is probably why emotionally charged food cravings veer towards the extreme part of the flavor spectrum – in my case, the very salty — going hand in hand with the glorious sensory sledgehammering that is the Fast and Furious franchise. It’s difficult to appreciate the stars when you’re adrift at sea.

But when the trumpets sounded in the BBC concert orchestra’s rendering of Franz Liszt’s enduring piano piece Hungarian Rhapsody No 2”, their tones poured into me like silver water. My mother was humming in her seat next to me, bobbing her head, and that blanket of sadness suddenly became less opaque.


By the end of the week, the rest of my senses had tumbled back to me: the stripes on this particular monster fly made it look even more villainous than the average bug; the cleansing softness of a curious baby’s fingers when he grasped yours as you handed his toy back to him; the unmitigated awesomeness of brie, which is under-appreciated as far as cheeses go.

Days later, I was on my bike when I spotted him down the road. I pretended I didn’t see him and sailed past. Maybe he did the same, but who knows?

I’d be lying if I said my heart didn’t clench. My metronome, the betrayer:

I am. 

I am. 

I am.


image – Luis Hernandez –