The folding city was divided into three spaces. One side of the earth was First Space, population five million. Their allotted time lasted from six o’clock in the morning to six o’clock the next morning. Then the space went to sleep, and the earth flipped. The other side was shared by Second Space and Third Space. Twenty–five million people lived in Second Space, and their allotted time lasted from six o’clock on that second day to ten o’clock at night. Fifty million people lived in Third Space, allotted the time from ten o’clock at night to six o’clock in the morning, at which point First Space returned. Time had been carefully divided and parceled out to separate the populations: Five million enjoyed the use of twenty–four hours, and seventy–five million enjoyed the next twenty–four hours.
The structures on two sides of the ground were not even in weight. To remedy the imbalance, the earth was made thicker in First Space, and extra ballast buried in the soil to make up for the missing people and buildings. The residents of First Space considered the extra soil a natural emblem of their possession of a richer, deeper heritage.
Lao Dao had lived in Third Space since birth. He understood very well the reality of his situation, even without Peng Li pointing it out. He was a waste worker; he had processed trash for twenty–eight years, and would do so for the foreseeable future. He had not found the meaning of his existence or the ultimate refuge of cynicism; instead, he continued to hold onto the humble place assigned to him in life.
Lao Dao had been born in Beijing. His father was also a waste worker. His father told him that when Lao Dao was born, his father had just gotten his job, and the family had celebrated for three whole days. His father had been a construction worker, one of millions of other construction workers who had come to Beijing from all over China in search of work. His father and others like him had built this folding city. District by district, they had transformed the old city. Like termites swarming over a wooden house, they had chewed up the wreckage of the past, overturned the earth, and constructed a brand new world. They had swung their hammers and wielded their adzes, keeping their heads down; brick by brick, they had walled themselves off until they could no longer see the sky. Dust had obscured their views, and they had not known the grandeur of their work. Finally, when the completed building stood up before them like a living person, they had scattered in terror, as though they had given birth to a monster. But after they calmed down, they realized what an honor it would be to live in such a city in the future, and so they had continued to toil diligently and docilely, to meekly seek out any opportunity to remain in the city. It was said that when the folding city was completed, more than eighty million construction workers had wanted to stay. Ultimately, no more than twenty million were allowed to settle.
It had not been easy to get a job at the waste processing station. Although the work only involved sorting trash, so many applied that stringent selection criteria had to be imposed: The desired candidates had to be strong, skillful, discerning, organized, diligent, and unafraid of the stench or difficult environment. Strong–willed, Lao Dao’s father had held fast onto the thin reed of opportunity as the tide of humanity surged and then receded around him, until he found himself a survivor on the dry beach. His father had then kept his head down and labored away in the acidic rotten fetor of garbage and crowding for twenty years. He had built this city; he was also a resident and a decomposer.
Construction of the folding city had been completed two years before Lao Dao’s birth. He had never been anywhere else, and had never harbored the desire to go anywhere else. He finished elementary school, middle school, high school, and took the annual college entrance examination three times—failing each time. In the end, he became a waste worker, too. At the waste processing station, he worked for five hours each shift, from eleven at night to four in the morning. Together with tens of thousands of co–workers, he mechanically and quickly sorted through the trash, picking out recyclable bits from the scraps of life from First Space and Second Space and tossing them into the processing furnace. Every day, he faced the trash on the conveyer belt flowing past him like a river, and he scraped off the leftover food from plastic bowls, picked out broken glass bottles, tore off the clean, thin backing from blood–stained sanitary napkins, stuffing it into the recyclables can marked with green lines. This was their lot: to eke out a living by performing the repetitive drudgery as fast as possible, to toil hour after hour for rewards as thin as the wings of cicadas.
Twenty million waste workers lived in Third Space; they were the masters of the night. The other thirty million made a living by selling clothes, food, fuel, or insurance, but most people understood that the waste workers were the backbone of Third Space’s prosperity. Each time he strolled through the neon–bedecked night streets, Lao Dao thought he was walking under rainbows made of food scraps. He couldn’t talk about this feeling with others. The younger generation looked down on the profession of the waste worker. They tried to show off on the dance floors of nightclubs, hoping to find jobs as DJs or dancers. Even working at a clothing store seemed a better choice: their fingers would be touching thin fabric instead of scrabbling through rotting garbage for plastic or metal. The young were no longer so terrified about survival; they cared far more about appearances.
Lao Dao didn’t despise his work. But when he had gone to Second Space, he had been terrified of being despised.
The previous morning, Lao Dao had snuck his way out of the trash chute with a slip of paper and tried to find the author of the slip based on the address written on it. Second Space wasn’t far from Third Space. They were located on the same side of the ground, though they were divided in time. At the Change, the buildings of one space folded and retracted into the ground as the buildings of another space extended into the air, segment by segment, using the tops of the buildings of the other space as its foundation. The only difference between the spaces was the density of buildings. Lao Dao had to wait a full day and night inside the trash chute for the opportunity to emerge as Second Space unfolded. Although this was the first time he had been to Second Space, he wasn’t anxious. He only worried about the rotting smell on him.
Luckily, Qin Tian was a generous soul. Perhaps he had been prepared for what sort of person would show up since the moment he put that slip of paper inside the bottle.
Qin Tian was very kind. He knew at a glance why Lao Dao had come. He pulled him inside his home, offered him a hot bath, and gave him one of his own bathrobes to wear. “I have to count on you,” Qin Tian said.
Qin was a graduate student living in a university–owned apartment. He had three roommates, and besides the four bedrooms, the apartment had a kitchen and two bathrooms. Lao Dao had never taken a bath in such a spacious bathroom, and he really wanted to soak for a while and get rid of the smell on his body. But he was also afraid of getting the bathtub dirty and didn’t dare to rub his skin too hard with the washcloth. The jets of bubbles coming out of the bathtub walls startled him, and being dried by hot jets of air made him uncomfortable. After the bath, he picked up the bathrobe from Qin Tian and only put it on after hesitating for a while. He laundered his own clothes, as well as a few other shirts casually left in a basin. Business was business, and he didn’t want to owe anyone any favors.
Qin Tian wanted to send a gift to a woman he liked. They had gotten to know each other from work when Qin Tian had been given the opportunity to go to First Space for an internship with the UN Economic Office, where she was also working. The internship had lasted only a month. Qin told Lao Dao that the young woman was born and bred in First Space, with very strict parents. Her father wouldn’t allow her to date a boy from Second Space, and that was why he couldn’t contact her through regular channels. Qin was optimistic about the future; he was going to apply to the UN’s New Youth Project after graduation, and if he were to be chosen, he would be able to go to work in First Space. He still had another year of school left before he would get his degree, but he was going crazy pining for her. He had made a rose–shaped locket for her that glowed in the dark: This was the gift he would use to ask for her hand in marriage.
“I was attending a symposium, you know, the one that discussed the UN’s debt situation? You must have heard of it… anyway, I saw her, and I was like, Ah! I went over right away to talk to her. She was helping the VIPs to their seats, and I didn’t know what to say, so I just followed her around. Finally, I pretended that I had to find interpreters, and I asked her to help me. She was so gentle, and her voice was really soft. I had never really asked a girl out, you understand, so I was super nervous… Later, after we started dating, I brought up how we met… Why are you laughing? Yes, we dated. No, I don’t think we quite got to that kind of relationship, but… well, we kissed.” Qin Tian laughed as well, a bit embarrassed. “I’m telling the truth! Don’t you believe me? Yes, I guess sometimes even I can’t believe it. Do you think she really likes me?”
“I have no idea,” Lao Dao said. “I’ve never met her.”
One of Qin Tian’s roommates came over, and smiling, said, “Uncle, why are you taking his question so seriously? That’s not a real question. He just wants to hear you say, ‘Of course she loves you! You’re so handsome.’”
“She must be beautiful.”
“I’m not afraid that you’ll laugh at me.” Qin Tian paced back and forth in front of Lao Dao. “When you see her, you’ll understand the meaning of ‘peerless elegance.’”
Qin Tian stopped, sinking into a reverie. He was thinking of Yi Yan’s mouth. Her mouth was perhaps his favorite part of her: So tiny, so smooth, with a full bottom lip that glowed with a natural, healthy pink, making him want to give it a loving bite. Her neck also aroused him. Sometimes it appeared so thin that the tendons showed, but the lines were straight and pretty. The skin was fair and smooth, extending down into the collar of her blouse so that his gaze lingered on her second button. The first time he tried to kiss her, she had moved her lips away shyly. He had persisted until she gave in, closing her eyes and returning the kiss. Her lips had felt so soft, and his hands had caressed the curve of her waist and backside, again and again. From that day on, he had lived in the country of longing. She was his dream at night, and also the light he saw when he trembled in his own hand.
Qin Tian’s roommate was called Zhang Xian, who seemed to relish the opportunity to converse with Lao Dao.
Zhang Xian asked Lao Dao about life in Third Space, and mentioned that he actually wanted to live in Third Space for a while. He had been given the advice that if he wanted to climb up the ladder of government administration, some managerial experience in Third Space would be very helpful. Several prominent officials had all started their careers as Third Space administrators before being promoted to First Space. If they had stayed in Second Space, they wouldn’t have gone anywhere and would have spent the rest of their careers as low–level administrative cadres. Zhang Xian’s ambition was to eventually enter government service, and he was certain he knew the right path. Still, he wanted to go work at a bank for a couple of years first and earn some quick money. Since Lao Dao seemed noncommittal about his plans, Zhang Xian thought Lao Dao disapproved of his careerism.
“The current government is too inefficient and ossified,” he added quickly, “slow to respond to challenges, and I don’t see much hope for systematic reform. When I get my opportunity, I’ll push for rapid reforms: Anyone who’s incompetent will be fired.” Since Lao Dao still didn’t seem to show much reaction, he added, “I’ll also work to expand the pool of candidates for government service and promotion, including opening up opportunities for candidates from Third Space.”
Lao Dao said nothing. It wasn’t because he disapproved; rather, he found it hard to believe Zhang Xian.
While he talked with Lao Dao, Zhang Xian was also putting on a tie and fixing his hair in front of the mirror. He had on a shirt with light blue stripes, and the tie was a bright blue. He closed his eyes and frowned as the mist of hairspray settled around his face, whistling all the while.
Zhang Xian left with his briefcase for his internship at the bank. Qin Tian said he had to get going as well since he had classes that would last until four in the afternoon. Before he left, he transferred fifty thousand yuan over the net to Lao Dao’s account while Lao Dao watched, and explained that he would transfer the rest after Lao Dao succeeded in his mission. “Have you been saving up for this for a while?” Lao Dao asked. “You’re a student, so money is probably tight. I can accept less if necessary.” “Don’t worry about it. I’m on a paid internship with a financial advisory firm. They pay me around a hundred thousand each month, so the total I’m promising you is about two months of my salary. I can afford it.” Lao Dao said nothing. He earned the standard salary of ten thousand each month. “Please bring back her answer,” Qin Tian said. “I’ll do my best.” “Help yourself to the fridge if you get hungry. Just stay put here and wait for the Change.”
Lao Dao looked outside the window. He couldn’t get used to the sunlight, which was a bright white, not the yellow he was used to. The street seemed twice as wide in the sun as what Lao Dao remembered from Third Space, and he wasn’t sure if that was a visual illusion. The buildings here weren’t nearly as tall as buildings in Third Space. The sidewalks were filled with people walking very fast, and from time to time, some trotted and tried to shove their way through the crowd, causing those in front of them to begin running as well. Everyone seemed to run across intersections. The men dressed mostly in western suits while the women wore blouses and short skirts, with scarves around their necks and compact, rigid purses in their hands that lent them an air of competence and efficiency. The street was filled with cars, and as they waited at intersections for the light to change, the drivers stuck their heads out of the windows, gazing ahead anxiously. Lao Dao had never seen so many cars; he was used to the mass–transit maglev packed with passengers whooshing by him.
Around noon, he heard noises in the hallway outside the apartment. Lao Dao peeked out of the peephole in the door. The floor of the hallway had transformed into a moving conveyor belt, and bags of trash left at the door of each apartment were shoved onto the conveyor belt to be deposited into the chute at the end. Mist filled the hall, turning into soap bubbles that drifted through the air, and then water washed the floor, followed by hot steam.
A noise from behind Lao Dao startled him. He turned around and saw that another of Qin Tian’s roommates had emerged from his bedroom. The young man ignored Lao Dao, his face impassive. He went to some machine next to the balcony and pushed some buttons, and the machine came to life, popping, whirring, grinding. Eventually, the noise stopped, and Lao Dao smelled something delicious. The young man took out a piping hot plate of food from the machine and returned to his room. Through the half–open bedroom door, Lao Dao could see that the young man was sitting on the floor in a pile of blankets and dirty socks, and staring at his wall as he ate and laughed, pushing up his glasses from time to time. After he was done eating, he left the plate at his feet, stood up, and began to fight someone invisible as he faced the wall. He struggled, his breathing labored, as he wrestled the unseen enemy.
Lao Dao’s last memory of Second Space was the refined air with which everyone conducted themselves before the Change. Looking down from the window of the apartment, everything seemed so orderly that he felt a hint of envy. Starting at a quarter past nine, the stores along the street turned off their lights one after another; groups of friends, their faces red with drink, said goodbye in front of restaurants. Young couples kissed next to taxicabs. And then everyone returned to their homes, and the world went to sleep.
It was ten at night. He returned to his world to go to work.