A little happening from a few weeks ago that I didn’t share.
One bright July afternoon on which I didn’t have any late afternoon meetings or looming deadlines, I was fortunate enough to be pushing through the heavy sidewalk traffic that you only encounter when you get to leave the office right on time. The neighborhood in which I live and work consists mainly of white-collar and creative industry offices, malls, and residences, and the crowd on the street is always heavy in educated 20-somethings with a smattering of shopkeepers and housewives or maids toting children (not to mention the obligatory flocks of the elderly in loose-fitting clothes, walking slowly and silently with hands often clasped behind the back).
I was nearing a bustling bus station when out from the familiar milieu poked a figure made eye-catching first by his height, second by his orange-highlighted I-just-punched-a-Tesla-coil hair, third by his intensely weather-beaten scowl, and fourth by his black, tight-fitting t-shirt which read “I ❤ Atom” with Atom Boy himself bursting out through the heart. He was leaning with his back on a skinny tree, his chin high and his face motionless as his eyes darted searchingly from point to point among the onrush of liberated 上班族 (shang ban zu, roughly “office ethnicity,” a slang word that humorously positions the uniform lifestyle habits of office people as the traditions of an ethnic group). His eyes rested on my torso, and, so I thought, remained there for a half second longer than they had elsewhere before flicking away again.
As I neared the point where he was standing, he slowly pushed himself off of the tree and turned as if he was looking for an opening to slip into the solid stream of bodies. When I was a few feet away, he took a slow step to the side, and as I came even with him, he took one step and swung in right behind me.
Now when you’re living in a place as crowded as Beijing, it’s not uncommon that people will appear to be following you all the time. There’s just a lot of people here (more than twice the amount one might find in New York, they say), and if you let your mind spin out narratives for every odd duck you chance upon in the street or the bus or the subway, then the sheer volume of created stories may soon leave no space in your mind for the preponderously significant narrative of reality. So when this suspicious (or was he, really?) character took his place directly behind me, I did nothing more than to note that my wallet was already in my front pocket, then begin to casually shift my backpack around on my shoulders, hopefully making it more difficult to unzip without my knowledge.
Just as I was confident that nothing was to be stolen from me that day, the crowd in front of me shifted a bit to accommodate the entry of another figure – a tall, muscular figure clothed in a black, tight-fitting t-shirt which read “I ❤ Atom” with Atom Boy himself bursting out through the heart. His hair was dyed slightly orange, but cropped close to his head, His face was similarly ruddy and worn, his expression similarly tight and unrevealing.
The man appeared just as I was passing a gap in the ad boards that line the bus stop, and before I had time to do much thinking about what the appearance of this second Atom Boy, out from the gap stepped a third man, not quite as tall but similarly rugged, wearing a white version of the very same shirt as the previous two. He stopped at the edge of the stream of people, and as his face remained motionless, his eyes began to dart to and fro between faces and bodies.
It seems that this third Atom Boy did not notice me as I passed, and when I looked back for the second, I discovered that he had taken up a post across the sidewalk from the bus stop. As the traffic thinned a bit coming out of the bus station bottleneck, I looked over my shoulder and saw that the original Atom Boy had turned and was pushing back through the crowds, back towards his tree.
I checked my pockets, swung my backpack around and found that it had not been opened and that nothing was missing, and then continued walking.
A few meters ahead was a staircase to a pedestrian overpass. I didn’t have to cross that overpass to get home, but I climbed it anyway, and took a position on the rail overlooking the bus stop and the passing traffic, pretending to play with my phone while searching the crowd below for Atom Boys. After a minute or two, I was able to count three visible Atoms, two in white shirts and one in black; the original tree-leaner was nowhere to be found.
I kept looking, trying to decide what exactly I was looking for, when suddenly the tree-leaner stepped out from behind an ad board, looked first at the crowd in front of him, and then up, directly into my eyes. His expression was set, like a mask; mine, I believe, was questioning. After a moment he looked down again and turned to face upstream.
I say “upstream” because it was at that moment that I began thinking in fish metaphors. After all those summers spent with Dad and Lucas chasing trout through often crystal-clear Colorado mountain rivers, the singular behaviors of stream fish left their trace in my imagination: the way they wait at the bottom of a small rapid or behind a rock, facing straight ahead with only a slight, absent waving of the tail to keep them in place; the way three or four of them will wait side-by-side, with uniform patience as they wait for the stream to bring their next meal; the way one might suddenly turn and flip around, tail waving and head mostly straight as it observes and pursues something it thinks might be delicious, the same way the original Atom had turned behind me a few minutes before, the way he was turning right at that moment to follow a long-haired girl in a blue dress with a matching blue purse over her shoulder, his eyes for the first time completely fixed on a target, his steps growing quicker as his body bent forward and his hand reached out towards the girl’s purse; and as his fingertips touched the clasp I felt my mouth open involuntarily, the same way it used to do when I felt a tug on my line, ready to call out that I had caught something, when suddenly the girl felt the pressure and looked down – but by that time the encroaching had had already been withdrawn, the clasp unopened, the warning cry ungiven, and the man once again pushing upstream against the mass of people as if nothing had happened.
Instead of taking up his position at the base of the rapid, he came up beside another Atom and squeezed him gently on the forearm. The two of them walked together towards an electric scooter, at one point laughing about something the smaller Atom said, then got on the scooter together and headed up the road, against the traffic.
I wondered at that point what my responsibilities were. I had no intention of trying to confront them myself, but also wasn’t sure if calling the police about a crime that didn’t happen would be wise for an outsider like myself. I crossed to the other side of the street on the overpass, then walked back along the road in the direction the thieves had fled, looking for their Atom Boy shirts at the next bus stop, and then the next – but they were gone, had disappeared into the endless flow of humanity with the maddening, ghost-like stealth of a great river fish, leaving behind nothing but a story.