“Meth was Trainspotting and Dust of Angels. Taiwanese education had worked like a charm, and he had taken a step back from the idea. What else was out there for him to try?”
Editor’s Note: The following by Chen Bo-ching 陳栢青 and translated by Kevin Wang is part of a notebook Queer Time, co-edited by Ta-wei Chi and Ariel Chu, which gathers contemporary queer Taiwanese literature in translation. To read the full Queer Time collection, visit its home here.
By Chen Bo-ching 陳栢青
Translated by Kevin Wang
“I really wish this was just a story about buying drugs.”
The pathetic look on his face kept me quiet. We were in the café at 3 PM on a Sunday, the perfect time for a confession. He spoke to me at the discount of two for the price of one, past the elders sitting around the next table with faces calm as cappuccino foam. The stationery of two high school students was laid out in formation—a frosted MUJI pencil case, a dog-eared reference book, candy-colored pencils, water brushes, a row of mechanical pencils—though the two students had been chattering for the past half hour about the new season of some Japanese or Korean drama and spilling the tea on their classmates. The air buzzed with so much excitement that a secret wouldn’t sound like much. Café conversations were typically superfluous. You could say anything, even unseemly things, the “matters of youth that startled one late at night.” He filled his cup to the brim, and we watched the layer of surface tension break and seep over.
“Speak, it’s not a crime. You’ll feel better if you talk.”
He said, “It’s embarrassing. Actually disgraceful.”
“How come?” I spread open my palms. “Today, I’m just going to listen. No comment, no judgment.” And yet, a sort of voyeuristic delight rose inside me. Had the day finally come? For a while, I’d wanted to learn more about his life. I wanted to be part of a late-night phone call, to trade obscenities and “what happened nexts,” all while secretly pleased at the other’s pain.
Maybe what I really wanted was for him to start crying so I could hold him in my arms, speak soft words, and wipe away his tears.
“No,” he said. It wasn’t buying drugs that he was ashamed of. He’d heard that the hottest thing rolling through the streets was “crystal.” What was that? He’d asked around. Meth! The little teacher in his head had jumped out with a lecture. He’d seen the warning flashes of a red light, the crossed-out circle of a PROHIBITED sign. Images of sunken eyes behind a metal fence, a person in withdrawal forced into a straitjacket, crawling, puking, wiggling on the floor. Meth was Trainspotting and Dust of Angels. Taiwanese education had worked like a charm, and he had taken a step back from the idea. What else was out there for him to try? That was a need he could not extinguish. There was always E, of course—he could try ecstasy.
That’s why he was embarrassed. He couldn’t keep up with the trends even when it came to drugs. Looking for E was no longer a sin. Nowadays it was done out of nostalgia. Well, so what if he wasn’t trendy? At least E was better for you.
He’d asked around on the app, afraid no one had it, afraid that he was too timid, that someone would actually have it, which would’ve given him no choice but to buy it and take it. What if the profile he’d matched with was a set-up for a fishing operation? What if the handcuffs came out as soon as he opened the door?
“No need to worry,” I said. “A cop on a fishing expedition would be even more clueless. You think they have E in their database?” It was a legacy drug from floppy disk times, no version update in ages. People didn’t use it to taste the new, but to relive the past.
He’d arranged to meet the man at a McDonald’s in the Ximen shopping district. Before the appointment, he’d already staked out escape routes. He looked for where he could shake off the cops and turn his jacket inside out. It was important that he wore a hat. He didn’t want to walk past an electrical appliance store and see that the satellites and security cameras had broadcasted his dilated pupils onto every TV screen.
He got to McDonald’s and saw the man. Eh? It was like looking into a mirror. The guy also had on a big coat with his face covered by a baseball cap. In that moment he kept thinking, hm, did everyone else have such a shitty imagination? The people passing by could probably tell they weren’t celebrity types who wore big sunglasses and upturned collars. Instead, their shady outfits said hey, we’re doing a drug deal.
“So you bought it?” I said.
He looked left and right. It was still Sunday afternoon in the café, but for some reason, the ambient noise had softened, making our presence bigger. It was no longer a place for secrets.
He said, “Let’s talk outside.” So the story picked up again on the seats by the sidewalk.
He could tell the other man was also afraid and wished he could say something to distract him. The guy was sweating, scratching and picking at his neck while mumbling indiscernibly. You wouldn’t know how to respond even if you could make out what he said. His voice sounded stifled, yet his footsteps were firm. They walked a big loop around Ximending. After winding through another alleyway, they ended up back at McDonald’s.
“So it was a fishing expedition after all?”
“No,” he said. They’d come to the other side of the McDonald’s. He could make out the back of the golden arches. The man asked, Ever seen Mr. Ronald McDonald’s ass? He said No, I haven’t even seen his dick. The man said he lived upstairs. He wasn’t about to bring the E down, so they had to go up to get it.
So that tedious opening, with its nine bends and eighteen turns, was just the start of Infernal Affairs. Now came the actual drug story.
They went into a little four-story hotel next to the McDonald’s. He’d never known there could be such a run-down place in Taipei’s most fashionable district. It looked like the kind of place where people got arrested. His worries rose with the light of each elevator button. The doors slid open, but there was no ambush. Instead, the air conditioning made him feel as if he’d descended into a cellar. He followed the man into a hallway. Each little detail startled him. Why was the man having a cozy chat with the auntie behind the counter? Was there a red button under her desk that she’d already pressed? The man walked over to a table where a full game of chess was happening and moved one of the pieces. The old man sitting nearby nodded as if he’d been waiting. Was that also a secret signal?
He walked through the hotel corridor, feeling like he was already tripping. A chill rose from his tailbone to his neck. For a long time, he had feared becoming the type of person who would go from the app to a janky hotel. He had everything he needed to live a nice, cozy life, but something was missing. He had grown tired of the faces that leaned in towards him at bar counters and more and more wanted things he could not have—the cakes behind the bakery window, the intensity of feelings from his youth, back when he was peeking at his classmate’s papers during exams. Maybe what he missed was the recklessness, the disregard for danger.
They got to the hotel room. The man pushed the door open and it banged against the wall. He jumped back, expecting an army to spill out, ripping off his jacket and cuffing him.
“Someone was in there?” I asked.
“No,” he said. But the man didn’t bring out any product either. He could tell the man had been staying there for a while. A towel was drying on a clothes hanger, and the lived-in smell of a bachelor’s room emanated from the bed.
“So, the stuff?” I asked.
So, the stuff? He’d asked the man.
Right in here. The man fished around the bedside cabinet and handed him a vial with a few pills inside. They looked like candy. He’d felt his mouth sweeten with drool, as if he could already taste it.
“Then?” I asked. The traffic light in front of us turned red. His voice halted. He was quiet on the next block too. After a while, he said, “Well, as for the rest, why don’t we keep talking at my place.”
He said, “Be quiet.”
In that moment, the man had also told him to be quiet. All he’d done was swallow very loudly. He’d reached for the vial of E when the man grabbed his wrist and said, here, I’ve got something better, just take a few hits of this and I’ll give it to you.
The man offered him a glass pipe. He swallowed nervously. The smoke rolling around in the pipe made it look like a department store snow globe with a whole other world inside. He felt like Snow White, like he’d been offered a big apple. He let out a groan from deep in his chest. It had been a trap after all.
This was meth, wasn’t it? He should’ve realized earlier with all the clues. The man had been so sweaty and paranoid. He’d thought he was the nervous one, but no, this whole trip wasn’t even about him. It was that man’s adventure.
Just take a few hits and I’ll give it to you, the man said again.
He considered the offer and stood for a moment with a foot across some threshold, an altered state of consciousness beckoning him.
You want to try it, don’t you? One hit. Then, I’ll give the E to you for free.
“I really wish this was just a story about buying drugs.”
I listened to him while sitting in his room. The curtains were drawn tight, and daylight seemed very far away. It was only the second floor, so how could the summer afternoon and the blares of car horns seem so distant? For some reason, I remembered the lengthy overture to his story.
He’d said to the man, Free things are the most expensive. He didn’t want it. He felt resolute about that.
The man said, Just one hit. Nothing’s going to happen. It’s good for the spirit.
No, no, no… With the alertness of a small animal, he snatched up the vial of E and threw off the man’s hand.
Just then, the pipe spilled over. He felt a cold wetness on his hand. He didn’t know if it was the man’s saliva or the water inside. Something wound around him like a snake.
He flung his hand at the air in disgust. He didn’t wait for the man to say anything and went to wash his hands. Past the bathroom door, everything was awash in a fluorescent light so bright it felt like disinfectant. Crystals in zip-up storage bags covered the ceramic floor tiles, the toilet lid and tank. This was no joke. He felt like he’d busted into a subterranean river in the Philippines or an Arctic ice cave. The crystals shone with a deviant luster in the light. A little digital scale rested on the washboard laid out across the sink.
Had he just walked into a meth lab? A picture of shadowy figures measuring things out on a spoon played in his mind.
The man rushed in and closed the door with his back. Was he about to be murdered, just like that? He wondered if he should scream, whether dying there was worse than getting arrested.
“So what did you do? Beg for mercy?” I asked.
“No,” he said. The man had calmly picked up five bags from the toilet, pinching and dangling them all scrotum-like in front of his face. Take a hit and these are yours. Was this guy nuts?
“You have to admire my steely resolve,” he said to me. “I wouldn’t have buckled even under the torture of some foreign devil or spy. I only wanted to make it out with the E.”
He stepped around the man and slipped past the bathroom door, trying to be as subtle as a house gecko, shaking his head all the while and politely declining the offer. I can’t, man. It’s my first time. Maybe I don’t even want the E anymore.
Without warning, the man surged right up to his face like a locomotive. There was a fire in his eyes as he spoke: One plus one, E plus E. You don’t even need any E, check this out. The man picked up five more bags and threw them all onto the bed, ten bags altogether. He said: How about this. You take a hit and I’ll give them all to you.
How much did each bag weigh? How much could he sell them for? He knew nothing about the market, but he thought, God, if he had that much just for one hit…
He suddenly realized that this was what it felt like to be someone’s boy god. The thought was hyping him up despite the ill-suited occasion. If only he could tell everyone: the beefcakes with the big pecs, the chatty Internet fairies, the people he matched with on the app who didn’t respond, the ones who said they were going to clean up in the shower when they were really opening a new window to chat with someone else, the ones who passed him by. He wanted to tell them, look at me now. I’m worth something! I’m worth five, no, ten bags of meth. I’m worth as much as a diamond. Look how much this guy wants me. Look what you’ve passed up…
Still, he didn’t have the courage to take the offer. Courage was no longer the issue. He was confused and had the gall to ask, That’s so much ice, you could play with anybody. Why bother with me?
These words extinguished the fire in the man’s eyes. A black hole formed around his nose, sucking in all the expression from his face. His voice was barely audible: Have you seen the way I look? Who would like me?
Nothing moved in the air. He said to me, “In that moment I wanted to hug him, run my finger through the greasy patch of hair on his balding head. Pinch his ears and lick his eyes. Tell him oh, I know. Even for people like us… it will be okay.”
So this was the story about drugs.
This was the story about boy gods, or rather, a story without any boy gods.
A story about meeting oneself.
(You are beautiful.)
(You are worthy of love.)
(You still have chances…)
The atmosphere had become surprisingly intimate. He said he was no longer afraid of the man. It was as though they were each other’s confidants, as if they’d been through a great deal together. Maybe the leftover smoke in the air was affecting him…
“So you took a hit? You got those five, ten bags?”
“No.” He looked at me with a perplexed expression. He didn’t even remember how he’d left that dingy hotel. All he had from that encounter was the vial with the rainbow-colored pills inside. He could not remember much—only that he’d felt very hurt.
“The important thing is, you got the E.”
“Well, yes,” he said. “I kept wondering when I was going to take it. It wouldn’t be for pleasure. All these sex drugs and finding boy gods to idolize, none of those were real desires. Wanting to ‘stand at the edge of the abyss and leap down’ was just a form of giving up.”
There was nothing wrong with giving up. The struggle to totally abandon everything happened to be a theme in every coming-of-age story—chasing the darkness on a running track, crying out into the night. Characters who got closer to one another because of a misunderstanding, or misunderstanding one another because they got too close. You flipped to the last page of a coming-of-age novel and found that the protagonist had been working hard towards something the whole time. In these stories, drugs played a role like money or power. It let bodies press up against you. It sped up sex and the rate of entropy. Didn’t it make you go harder? Could the Buddha have blamed Sanzang for taking the easy way to the West by riding the somersault cloud? Yet in the moment your body shuddered, embracing another overheated body like hugging hot coal, it always felt like something had burnt out.
“So you tried it, then. What did it feel like?” I asked. My eyes must have been flashing frantically. His voice felt like a hook that had burrowed into my skin. I tried to scratch at the itch and could not reach it, so I could only ask him more questions.
“You can ask yourself that,” he said, looking at me. “I put it in your coffee earlier.”
I’d fallen into a trap after all. I sighed. If only this were a story about buying drugs. Only, this was no longer a story. This road full of lures, this story long enough to fill a thousand and one nights, the walk from the café to the sidewalk to his house, the swirling creamer on top of the coffee—it all turned into a whirlpool in my mind. Sugar cubes gurgled in silence.
Then he came closer, took out the vial, and poured out a pill. On his tongue was where his story and mine would overlap.
(Was I your boy god too?)
I’d already had whatever he’d given me, so what was the worst that could happen? I looked at him sheepishly and started to laugh. So that was it, then. Whatever had happened to him would happen to me. Let’s give it all up. Didn’t I want it? Did I want it?
In the next second, my vision became all askew. A beam of light appeared in front of me like the moment before a television screen switches off. Then a flicker and everything went dark.
When I opened my eyes again, the light outside the curtain had dimmed. Was it the same day, or had many nights passed?
I turned my head over. Huh? There he was next to me on the bed with his clothes on.
That was it? This was what E felt like? Where was the “landing among the stars” and “the universe holding your hand” that people had promised? Somehow I couldn’t remember anything. I felt really pissed all of a sudden. Not about his slipping something into my drink, but about feeling fuck all. That… really hadn’t been worth it.
I was heavy with regret as I picked up the vial that had rolled aside. There were still a few pills left. I looked inside like a scientist at an insect and was stunned. Was that even E? These pills looked exactly like the sleep medication that the doctor had prescribed to me.
He had lied. But he had also been lied to.
This is the story of my life and all that has been true. If we do not believe, we would be left with nothing.