Sweat – Anthony Statham

Everyday since his arrival in China the teacher felt confusion growing on his brain like an unseen tumor. Pink tissue, no gravity. Right side up from upside down was impossible to tell. The inhabitants of his building shoved through him onto the elevator, slamming and jostling, before he could get out. In the loud, steamy restaurants near his building the Chinese people screamed at each other and the line to the register seamed to have no order at all. The small women working behind the counter, with the black orbs in eye sockets, at the convenience store on the corner treated him with nothing more than moderate disgust. He felt like a wounded bunny in a den of wolves. He dodged people half his size, hunched old woman, children, to prevent confrontation. Babies eyed him and won the staring contests. At work the other people who spoke English were of little use, navigating their duties with occasional throat clearing coughs – hung-over. They were irritable beings that ignored his presence. No one told him his duties or told him who might be able to tell him his duties, so he counted the porous dots on the ceiling. The foreigners answered any inquiries from the teacher with indifference, and the Chinese staff operated like flies, hovering nearby, whispering to one another, flitting off and away anytime he made eye contact. The tall man from Australia smelled of stale alcohol and body odor. The teacher noticed this when the Australian lamented under his breath, between irritable thumps of open palm at the derelict photocopier, what he missed from his home country, saying, “The beer in China is shit. It’s shit.” His first meal at a Chinese restaurant was with the woman. Her dreadlocked hair scratched at the air around her head. The teacher followed her to a nearby canteen where the woman spoke incessantly of the the children in her classes, saying, “Their teeth are dreadful. Black and they’re very small. All the teeth in China are terrible. The children, even those whose mother or fathers are dentists have awful little broken, dirty teeth.”

The teacher remained silent during the brief exchanges, acting as if he understood their plight. And as far as their concern for him regarding the business of teacher in the school, they showed absolutely no concern.

He spotted a rickety chair at a frumpy little desk in the corner of the office. Seated, his back was to the door and never before had he been more paranoid of piano wire arcing over his head and digging into his throat. He noticed a large dead spider on the floor and pushed it under a crease in the tile. He chose not to mention it to any of his colleagues for fear they might have complaints about the arachnids and launch into diatribes about the eight-legged creatures.

He spent his time navigating Internet Explorer – apparently the Communist standard in web browsing – learning the sites permitted in China. His email was unavailable, as were his usual search engine and all the news sites he thought to check. With a new president in command, a man felt to be completely inept by most of his countrymen back home (and around the globe), the teacher felt obligated to stay in the know. If any of his colleagues were to speak to him in a forthcoming manner he felt certain the new president and his worldwide reputation of being a bungling fool would come up and he wanted to have something informative to add to the conversation, or at least an amusing wisecrack. The teacher hadn’t voted, and now that his feet were planted haphazard on East China soil, he sensed guilt in his semi-Patriotic nethers. Though, the election, he felt, was a farce so absurd and tragic he didn’t really possess the sound reasoning to put it into words: Adam Sandler movies clumsily making love gangbang fashion to a Kafka novel with the lights on in a small school bus, the kind mentally disabled kids road in, is how he envisioned it in hindsight.

At night in his new apartment he lay awake with his eyes open. The walls dripped with what the teacher presumed was his own sweaty fluid somehow transposed onto the cheap wallpaper. Mosquitoes buzzed around his head, noisy as motorcycles on American freeways. Down on the streets below the relentless honking and braking of cars. All night his drenched body flopped like a trout, his eyes bulged with restlessness and in the morning as the sun rose he rubbed them vigorously with stressed knuckles, sat up and scratched all the lumpy mosquito bites until they were red and raw. On the sheet was a wet imprint of his being. His eyes crossed as it slowly evaporated.

The teacher was making no progress on the communication front at work, so he drifted mindlessly through the dark hallways until he found a classroom and entered. He sat down with the lights off and fanned his sweat soaked shirt. His eyes were heavy, stinging from lack of sleep. At some point his mind came back from the slurred and sloshing nothing, he saw a class in session. The students were an unruly bunch of feeble children, led by the tall man dancing and singing like some jerry-rigged court jester. The children’s lips were violently blistered, and made the teacher anxious. Several times he made to stand up and leave. For whatever reason was unable to move. He watched the uncomfortable display, his heartbeat ticking in his temples. The children couldn’t catch balls or throw them, and they ran with an abnormal forward lean which the tall man was oblivious to. The teacher’s butt rose from his chair every time a small child took flight, thinking that he might need to scoop or dive after a small face about to come in contact with the floor. Somehow the children managed to avoid disaster and the teacher, sweating copiously, his testicles like the everglades, was glad to not witness the obliteration of a child’s chin. The class ended abruptly and the tall man exited with an almost unreal swiftness. The children sat in small plastic chairs all the colors of a deranged rainbow. One by one small black eyes turned and took inventory of the teacher in the corner. Try as he might he couldn’t dissolve into the wall behind him.

The corridor was dark when he left the classroom. The tall man swooshed past him like an apparition, silent and then gone. In the office a Chinese girl sat alone at a desk, her face buried into the screen. Her fingers slammed at the keyboard in a nerve-wracking antithesis to rhythm. The foreign staff was all gone.

On top of the damp sheet the teacher lay awake thinking of home. He wondered what his cat was doing. He gave it to an ex-girlfriend, someone he mistrusted on a good day. Was it a mistake to leave for another country, a place you know nothing about, and leave a cat behind? Was his new life riddled with irresponsibility and animal betrayal? No doubt, between naps, the cat sat by the window and waited for his return. The truth was he had no one back home, really, other than the cat, and that notion filled his guts with sickly bile. As his heart rate increased, on the puckered ceiling overhead the expressions of his new colleagues swirled – their eyes showed nothing at all, and the curve of their tight lips like the elderly suffering the barbaric grips of dementia. His mind raced about like a blind rat on meth, and as invisible bloodsuckers ate him alive he felt the red veins of madness violating the fatigued sclera of his eyes. Through those same burning eyeballs he bared witness to the sunrise and when he could take no more he stood up on wobbly legs and watched the wet impression of his life slowly fade away from the yellowing sheet.

A schedule sat on his desk in the corner when he arrived at his job. The teacher wasn’t sure who placed it there. None of the other foreign teachers acknowledged his arrival. He muttered a hello, to the people there, or at the floor. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d spoken aloud and his voice was as alien to him as all the Mandarin he couldn’t escape. He sat down and looked over the schedule. Already his shirt was sticky with sweat, and his hand made frequent swipes at his face. The schedule informed him he was to teach a group of eleven children, ages three to five, in an hour. He didn’t know the curriculum, the book, the course guide, or where to find them. The children’s names were scrawled in Chinese on the paper. He decided to ask a fellow colleague for a hand, anything really to help him and when he turned around their chairs were empty, one still spinning as if in a gentle breeze. A fat dead spider rested at the base of his desk. He pushed it under the crease in the flooring.

The sound of chaos permeated the closed door and into the moist hallway. The air draped a thick heavy curtain over reality. He didn’t have to open the door to know that inside the room the children ran and screamed, uncorked madness. He took a deep breath and turned the knob. One small child sat in the center of the room, tears blobbing on her cheeks. Her wails intermingled with all the other children creating a singular shriek. The Chinese teaching assistant, a girl he was never introduced to, popped gum in her teeth on a chair in the far corner. Her fingers twiddled feverishly on her phone. She didn’t look up when he entered, paid no mind to the children. A plastic bowling pin whizzed through the air and struck the teacher in the crotch. He winced, tried to keep a brave face and rubbed at the tip of his sore penis, all the while focusing his eyes on the air conditioning unit in the ceiling. Rubber balls disguised as watermelons shot around the room, a giant soft dice struck a cup of water and spilled onto the tile. The children ricocheted off one another, each passing syllable growing in intensity. Never did the teacher think it possible for such small humans to make so much sound. Sweat beaded in his scalp, pooled on his back, ran in rivulets down his temples and chin. His head swooned. He tried his voice, muttered an excuse me toward the general populace. He couldn’t hear his words, even in his own head. The commotion reached a fever pitch, every particle in the room vibrated, exploded. The teacher squeezed his eyes shut, certain he was going to faint. As reflex, his feet spread to maintain an upright position. When he opened his eyes the room was silent, each child’s gaze planted upon the dripping foreign person standing at the door. The teaching assistant’s face seemed to be melding with the screen of her phone. The teacher wiped sweat from his face and walked toward the desk he assumed was for him. After two steps he slipped on the spilled water and watched his feet rise into the air above his head, wondered why he hadn’t bought new shoes before coming to China, and then the empty clack of his skull making contact with the tile floor. The air conditioning unit swam in his vision, seemed to rotate slowly above him, and out of every corner emerged, like a malicious infantry, fat black spiders.

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