First Time to a Bathhouse [2022 Loraine Williams Poetry Prize Featured Finalist]

In 1985, on the way to a bathhouse, Bà’s head
was a gong eclipsing the sun. His ground-loving flip-flops

making a broken ragtime on the street.
Walking past. I was five. I had known

a few dangers. Those hot Bāozi coming out
of a steamer, for example. Those fast bites

and a scorched mouth. Sān Kuài Qián. Wǔ Kuài Qián.
They were five cents back then, dancing on my tiny fingers.

In the barbershop, I learned to close my eyes
when they washed my hair. Let it go, I hoped.

Leave 1 cm, Bà said. Then the barber cut it all off.
For whom did I want my hair long? Certainly

not girls, for I hated them back then
for being different from me. How counter-

revolutionary it seemed to pee while sitting. Walking past.
The bookstore where I rummaged like a squirrel

for new comics, the owner chasing me away
with a feather duster: Mā never used a feather duster

but a towel cropped out of a shabby tee shirt.
You don’t want the dust everywhere, she said.

And that’s how I clean my room now, glad
I still have spare, shabby tee shirts. Walking past.

At the butcher’s, an assortment of broken ducknecks
was a local cuisine we couldn’t afford

so we brought home some squishy stuff, still warm
from a pig, which Mā wok-fried with celery. It tasted good

and was cheap, which was also good. As if goodness is the same
as saving up, as starving ourselves; thin=good. Walking past.

A shop, crowded at the Spring Festival
sold kids firecrackers that exploded when hurled at the ground.

It sounded dangerous. Use them up
before grownups confiscated them. Walking past.

A decent restaurant. A makeshift chimney. A narrow doorway
to a half-lit staircase, where people lived upstairs, inhaling smoke

and dreaming from time to time. Maybe about steam engines.
Every now and then, Bà would stop for an acquaintance—Call Uncle!

—while I would wait to morph into a dinosaur, a policeman, a truck
until I ran out of words, was reduced to a tedious kid on the street.

Thought everyone was bored like me but they kept moving
in different paces and directions. We finally moved on, slipping

our shadows into a crowd’s, while I gasped for fresh air amid trousers and fists.
Maybe we had a real plan to visit somewhere, I thought,

like touring a castle or a graveyard of fighter jets. So many secrets
outside my street that others must have discovered

and got bored with! But we descended the ramp
to the smell of soap and grown men’s backs. To me

it was alluring: the rubbing of Bà’s palms
against my armpits, my clogged ears for two days, 

my penis that wrinkled and lengthened like a snail.
Should I tell Bà that an old man was staring at me,

long and long? But soon Bà’s head lowered,
his voice in a soft, fake-casual manner

let me to him. And the man smiled,
his gold tooth a dark shine through the mist:

Yes I will take your son to my school. 
Yes I will beat him and educate him.

 

Weijia Pan is a poet and translator from Shanghai, China, and an MFA candidate at the University of Houston. His poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from AGNI, The Georgia Review, Tupelo Quarterly, 诗釱, and elsewhere.