The Expatriates - Janice Y. K. Lee Page 0,1

their encroachment with bemused silence. Every morning they pass the crazy charwoman in the lobby who barks incomprehensible Cantonese invectives at them as they walk through, fingertips pecking on their phones, pretending not to notice. These superbly energetic men and women have tried to get the charwoman replaced, started a petition, which was photocopied and slipped under Mercy’s door for her signature, but all their efforts have come to naught. The crazy woman stays all day and night, sitting on her plastic stool, bucket and mop beside her, shouting at them and at herself. It is believed she lives in a little room off the lobby, but no one has been able to ascertain the truth. No one has ever seen her do any cleaning, or leave, or come back. It’s one of those Hong Kong mysteries, where she might be the landlord’s demented aunt, a homeless person who has made the lobby her home, or indeed an insane millionaire who owns the building. All this conjecture and information is conveyed through messages posted in the elevator. Then suddenly one day, a direction to an online message board, to which they all migrate, leaving the wall in the elevator mercifully blank. All that remains of the shrill, slightly hysterical dialogue is a strip of yellowing Scotch tape on the plastic wall.

Mercy is hungry. She should eat. But she wants to eat a centaur’s thigh, roasted over a bonfire, turned on a spit by fairies, their sparkly little faces perspiring from the heat. She is certain she will not find this when she ventures out into the small, tight streets around her. They are filled instead with equally improbable things: shiny cow innards; disembodied pigs’ heads with floppy ears, stacked up in bloody piles; dried seahorses in burlap sacks. She does not find the food grotesque, instead is bewildered by how one begins to eat such items, existing as they do in such peculiar and indeterminate forms, or indeed, alive, or in quantities that would feed a village.

When she gets up, she determines, she will turn on her space heater to warm the chill of the December air. She will take out a head of organic Boston lettuce from her little refrigerator and pull apart the leaves, soak them for ten minutes, then transfer them into a spinner, where they will be centrifuged, and the sandy water discarded. She will toss the leaves in a wooden bowl with a micro spray of olive oil, a drop of balsamic vinegar, the insanely expensive balsamic vinegar that she bought at the gourmet store, so viscous it drips in a slow, thick stream. A tomato. A Persian cucumber. These will emerge, pristine, from her tiny refrigerator, chilled, perfect. She will slice them thinly and fan them into beautiful patterns, a vegetable mandala, courtesy of the mandoline, a feast for the eyes. She will hand-crumble Parmigiano Reggiano onto the top, and then, from on high, she will brandish the mill and grind coarse crystals of pink salt from the Himalayas into fine, sparkly shavings that will float, like snowflakes, onto the pale green surface of her salad.

She will bring the salad to the table by her bed, which she will have set with a scalloped linen placemat she bought on a trip to Hanoi, with a matching napkin, and a glass with a bottle of Fiji water just next to it, ready for pouring. She lives in a two-hundred-square-foot studio, but she does not have to live like a savage.

Mercy will sit on the bed and take up her instruments: her heavy silver fork and knife, stolen from Gaddi’s restaurant on a memorable night in better times. The lettuce, slightly glossed with oil, will yield as she presses the tines of her fork into it, the hole bleeding a slightly darker green as she breaks the cells of the leaf, violent death in its own microscopic way. From there, she will lift it into her mouth, a light sliver on her tongue for an instant before her teeth grind it into a small, slippery pulp that will slip down her throat. She will swallow. She will cut another piece. She will put it in her mouth and chew again. Swallow. Drink water. Drink more water. Spear another leaf. Repeat.

It is important to do things right. Otherwise, when you live alone, it can devolve very quickly. Stand on ceremony. Observe the rites. That’s how you get through the day.

Margaret

IT’S A TRICKY PROJECT. The house sits atop