Every day at noon Mr. Wu walked through the back alley, past the stinking ravine and the firecracker salesman and the old temple now used as a kind of flophouse for the farmworkers who came in from the country to these outskirts to sell at the market, and down past the rows of little stores that were mostly barbershops and brothels and pharmacies and little clothing stores and cigarette shops, and found a seat at the little family restaurant, under the great, hard-whipping fan sticky with dust from the road, and ordered dishes of pork and potato and whatever fresh vegetable was on display, and sat and watched cartoons and smoked while the food cooked, and the dogs walked by, and the dust rose and fell behind the small trucks and bikes and scooters.
He was in love with the woman at the video-game arcade. She was about his age, in her midforties, and had a daughter in high school. He knew her both from the arcade and from around the neighborhood, as she and her daughter lived just a few doors down from him in an apartment with her sister and her sister’s retarded son. The woman ignored Mr. Wu when they passed each other on the busy road. But when he ran into her in the narrow pathways of the market, she’d smile politely and ask after his health. “Never better,” was the answer he always mumbled. He knew his breath was bad, and because her eyes wandered away so quickly, he knew she had no interest in him.
Mr. Wu dared not visit the local prostitutes. He took a bus into the city and spent the extra money for that bit of privacy. Besides, he thought, it's better not to know where these girls come from, who else they are working on, and so forth. He was bashful about sex, and insisted on getting underneath the sheets to take off his clothes. During the act he kept his hands placed lightly on the girl’s shoulders and averted his eyes, but did not close them. He had learned somewhere that closing your eyes meant that you were in love. He imagined closing his eyes with the woman from the arcade. He wondered if she had the same kind of body as these prostitutes: soft, scentless, and wan. He thought it was quite standard to hate himself a little after visiting a prostitute, so he was never startled when the thought came to him: I am disgusting. On the bus home, he ate an ice cream and looked out the window, and thought of his woman at the arcade and of what she might be doing at just that moment, and his heart hurt.
He lived alone in the tallest house in the neighborhood. The downstairs neighbors were a young couple with a big, fat baby and a pet sow. The husband made a living collecting bribes for a local councilman. The woman had one flaccid hand that reminded Mr. Wu of a large prawn. He shuddered and gagged whenever he saw it. He felt sorry for the child, held and fed with that twisted, thin, limp, and red-skinned tentacle. The woman from the arcade had small, gentle, bronze-colored hands. Strong and muscled, not bony, and not fat. Just right, he thought. Perfect hands. He went to the arcade at least once a day and stayed for three to four hours at a time, usually in the late evenings. Sometimes he went in the mornings, too, when it was free of children. Days he did not go, he felt sick to his stomach, and his heart growled like a trapped animal, brooding and useless. So he went as often as he could.
The arcade was not really an arcade. It was a room full of computers with games loaded onto them and access to the Internet. He bought a daily pass from the woman. He handed her a large bill so that she would have to make change and he could stand there longer, watching her count the money, feeling her near to him across the counter.
“How are you today, Mr. Wu?” she said. She said this every day.
He mumbled something unintelligible. He never knew what to say around her. Everything he wanted to say was “You are beautiful” and “I’m in love with you.” There was, in his mind, nothing else for him to say.