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Archive for June, 2011

Note: Inspired by “Love Suicides” [1926] 川端の物語をお読みください。それははるかに優れています。

The email arrived in the woman’s inbox. Surprised to see her husband had written her. Two years had passed since he dropped out of sight, leaving her and her daughter to twist in the city. She tracked his ISP and saw it came from a foreign address. He was far away.

“Turn off the computer. I can feel the packets shooting across the web. The ones and zeros flash through my mind and cut through my spirit. Assembling them again causes me endless heartache.”

She turned off the computer, the DSL, and the wireless router. Unplugged them all and tucked them away in the closet. She then removed all the woolen sweaters to avoid any static upsetting the circuitry.

The next day, a text appeared on her cell. The country code was different from where he mailed her from.

“Your mobile phone breaks me apart. The wireless signal rings in my ears and each bar surges through my veins.  Every ASCII character slices me like a razor. Cut your service.”

She removed the battery and snapped the handset in half. Did not bother to recycle it, dropping each piece of the phone in a different trash can. Canceled her number at the provider’s offices.

A week later she returned from shopping and her voice mail flashed red. The caller ID referred to a hospital for the infirm several time zones away. She entered her password and brought up the message. It was the first time she heard his voice in years.

“I cannot bear carrying on across these wires. When they convert my voice to electricity I grow mute. Then my words are rendered digitally and I am paralyzed with anguish. Please unplug the phone, the wires strangle me inside.”

The wife called the phone company and surrendered her service. She unplugged the phone, first from the wall, then the base, then the handset. She cast each piece into the river.

From then on, she only spoke to those who came before her. People who did not come to the house received a note, if they got anything at all. Her daughter shrieked and wailed about not being able to call her friends. Then the letter arrived the following week. The stamp reflected currency she did not recognize. The handwriting was his, though somehow also that of an old man’s.

“I hear the scribblings when you write and when she does her assignments. Each scratch on the paper tears across my soul. I am torn asunder.”

The wife watched from the hallway, remembering when her husband had taught the girl how to write on the wide-ruled horizontal papers with dotted lines. The girl took pencils from her father’s desk and started sketching on the college-ruled spiral bound. The woman quickly snatched the instruments from her hand and snapped them in twain. Threw the pencils in the fireplace. Set them ablaze: the sound of her husbands heart burning. Suddenly, she raised her eyebrows. She snatched every pen and pencil in the house and tossed them in the flames. Wasn’t this the sound of her husband’s heart on fire? The woman smashed the flat screen and scattered the pieces into the street. What about this technology? She threw herself against the sliding glass door until the whole pane cracked with spiderweb creases from her elbows and knees. She wrenched at the curtains until they tore from the rod, cascading around her writhing body. And what about this expression? Nothing is revealed.

The girl ran into the garage. She lept into the car and honked the horn six times. Each blast sounded like “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!” The woman rose, entered the car and slammed the open door on the tear stained face of her daughter.  Listen to this sound!

Like a echo of that sound, a voice came over the radio when she put the key in the ignition. Familiar yet aged, her husband whispered out of the speakers. It sounded like a broadcast from across the sea.

“Do not communicate at all. Do not transmit in any fashion. Every syllable murders me, every dispatch stabs my soul. You cannot even let the clocks tick their vicious metrononmety, each advance of the second hand slashes my essence. No expression of any kind can escape into the ether!”

“The pair of you, the pair of you, the pair!” Weeping into her hands, the woman turned the engine over. Then that was the only sound. In this moment and in this world, there can never be silence. Yet the woman and her daughter made no sound. Forever, they discovered the peace he demanded.

He entered the car and died with them before the gas ran out.

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In Taiwan, they called us” waiguoren” – outside country people. I liked that because it sounded like “why go on”. Had no answer at the time.

On the island for a month at that point. Summer would not end. I reached November and the temperature was still in the thirties. I did not sleep more than twenty hours over that stretch. Playing with the kids by day and smoking the world’s most ironic cigarette, “Longlife”, by night-I passed the time in irresolution. When I could not sit still, I rode a bicycle all over Miaoli county until dawn broke over the straights. On the weekends, I towered over everyone on the playground courts and disappeared into the capital. I had come a long way from the Bronx, and the alienation only grew with time. Something I learned to accept. Set me on a path of decadence.

I had made a few contacts by then. The locals I met proved friendly and generous. One, Stephen, brought me along on a family trip to Kenting over the ten/ten holiday. I also befriended expatriates who shared my bewilderment, though sometimes little else. Not mutually exclusive, but there are only so many hours in a day to spend with contemporaries. Decided to split my time. Then it became obvious.

Friday night, I rode into Hsinchu. This was the “big town” in the region. To be fair, it had a great cinema showing Chinese classics and an excellent department store, but it was a far cry from Herald Square, Causeway Bay, or Shinjuku. All down my nose anyway, since wore my NYC bona fides too distinctly on my sleeve  and nothing could measure up. So out of place there, I did not have much else to go with. The vocabulary of the dispossessed afforded all I could speak. Mute to the world around me.

I got off the train listening to the “Streets of Fire” soundtrack. “Tonight is What It Means to be Young” blared ironic and dated, but I was restless and broken hearted no doubt. Let the revels begin. Let the fires be started.

I hailed a cab. Lucky me, it was the best cab in the universe. First, he turned off the meter. We negotiated a price instead by holding up fingers. Then he could not understand my destination, the Royal Hotel, and I did not know its Mandarin name. So we spun around until we found a valet with an understanding of the local landmarks. Then we cruised the strip of beetlenut girls. He got out and bought two beers, one for each of us. I have never before or since enjoyed a taxi ride where the driver openly consumed alcohol while driving me to my destination, and I have taken taxis on four continents. This guy balled out of control.

The girl working the road stand who sold us the beer was a serious babe. That’s how they get those jobs. Long legs, lots of make-up, all done up in a sequined mini-dress, she had it going on. The driver opened the window and jabbered at her in Hokkien, managing to get her to lean into the car. This was likely so I could get a view of the stems, and her ass practically given how short her skirt was. It was a sight to behold, but I had places to go. He kept looking back at me and smiling, asking “Okay?”. By now, the ride had gone from amusing to tedious in rapid fashion. I threw my empty can of Taiwan beer out the window and demanded we move on. For the rest of the ride he made sex gestures and kept lowering her price. I laughed it off. Never paid for streetwalkers, never will. Drunk taxi-driving pimps, however, get a fat tip.

Finally, we reached the hotel. The party was not there, but it served as a meeting place for all the expats. Besides, this crowd was a long way from being classy enough to drink martinis in hotel bars. Case in point, the fifteen of us gathered and we made our way to the convenience store. We stocked up on snacks and liquor, then dripped down towards the office buildings. Even in “autumn” I found it oppressively hot, so I rolled up my sleeves, took off my tie, and undid three buttons. Everyone else was in T-shirts, but I had come from work. I prefer to dress better than those around me anyway. Vanity writ visible.

We posted up at some picnic tables under a pavilion in the nearby science park. I would just call it a corporate facility, but the locals deemed it somehow scientific. Cracked the Absolut and Nori Crackers to start the evening. Amongst us the mean age was thirty, yet the whole scene reminded me of high school. Mixing screwdrivers outdoors, chatting about pop music, sizing each other up sexually. I played along, but wondered if these people could see the world around them. Here we stood, on the most politically divisive bit of real estate in the Pacific and all these dorks could talk about was “Hey Ya!”. You knew the place, now you know the time frame.

The group was a mix of Americans and Commonwealthers. My best friend in the group was Dave, a black banker from London who hilariously hated rice. We had both run from careers in Finance to Formosa, though neither of us would divulge the entire story. We each had a working knowledge of literature and Asia, so the conversation always went smoothly. The other person I liked was Diane, a white South African. I had done a Capetown swing the year before, so she evaluated my interpretations of the place and how amusingly contradictory they were. She had left her husband back there, after some unpleasantness. Whether it was philandering or violence I never inquired. She returned the favor regarding my despair. Did not matter in the end. The three of us were content that we had found the other broken toys.

The rest were nincompoops from no account towns in Canada, New Zealand, and the States. The evening wore on as they all talked about work, gossiped about the other expats, and bitched about Taiwan. They were ill-formed on all three. I decided this party had no life, so I might as well provide it. I held forth, related the peculiar taxi ride over, went on about whatever paramour I had stashed in Taipei, and of course I dropped a few New York stories because I missed the place so much. Got a few laughs and some eye rolls. Remained unphased, since I was listening to the most interesting person there. Arrogance in full flower.

The more we drank, the more boisterous I grew. The heat remained oppressive. We had killed three bottles of vodka by then which turned it up even further. I weighed my options and started flirting with one of the Kiwis. This was both practical as well as sensual. By then the trains has stopped running and I did not know where I would sleep that night. I had her laughing and touching my arm, when one of the Americans stood up. Possibly jealous. More likely just drunk. Could not stand that I was having fun.

“You New Yorkers are really impressed with yourselves! I don’t think you’ve shut up since we got here!” He exclaimed with antipathy. The sweat dripped from his red face and the irritation flashed in his eyes. Probably the most expressive he ever got. Some people need anger to become vital. We call those people assholes.

“Hey man, I thought this was a party. You don’t have to like what I am saying, but why not make up your own instead of complaining!” I returned. Getting cranky now and the girl backed away. I think this is all he really wanted, but he kept going. Naturally, everyone’s entitled to their opinion and everybody’s right. This stands as the fundamental problem with humanity.

“These are my friends here. This is our party. I don’t know who invited you, but you should shut up and go back to Hsinchu or New York or where ever you came from!” He puffed and pouted. The rest of the crew seemed to nod along with the scene, so I took a cue. Hardly the first time someone handed my walking papers when I was being charming. Playing the game means losing sometimes.

“Well, I was enjoying myself though not so much any more. I won’t stay where I am not welcome. I shall take my leave of you!” I retorted, figuring I could still catch a night bus or something.  I walked forty meters into the darkness and took a piss on a fence. The rage surged and I decided this exit was not sufficiently dramatic. If you leave, leave an impression.

I slowly strolled back to the circle. I nodded to Dave, and turned toward my detractor. Wound up and slapped him full in the face. Like the bitch he was and probably still is.

“I am calling you out. What you got to say now? Bring it.” I offered, shoving him into a pillar. He decided to insult a New Yorker, he should know how we usually respond. A hot wire like a third rail is live.

I stepped back and opened my stance. Gestured, offering him a free shot. High school all over again, except he demurred and faded into the background somewhere. Dave pushed me back and questioned me. He said we were still mates, but that I should calm down. I think we guzzled one more beer and the party broke up. In typical fashion, I had made the scene then shut it down. Everyone needs a hobby.

The next evening I kicked it with the Chinese instead. Again, splitting my time between the two. Steven picked me up in his minivan. He was the Taiwanese friend who had taken me on holiday with his kids. One of the most generous and sensitive gentleman I have had the pleasure of knowing. We drove by the water and ate some of the largest shrimps to be found in the Pacific. We watched the waves roll in and out and discussed the arrival of the losers in 1949. I had no idea how savage Chiang had been to the minorities and intellectuals. Given this, I challenged him on his continued support of the Kuomintang. I was solidly DPP at the time, since this was before Chen got stupid with it. Glad he’s twisting now and Ma is behind the wheel, but at the time he was shaking things up and this impressed me. Bravado makes for more dynamic political theater than ideas. As usual, Stephen proved more prescient than I, but he was too smooth rub it in later. The discussion was measured and civilized, unlike the ignorant conversations with the expats the night before. It was night now, but something started to dawn on me.

We cruised to Dr. Tao’s place after dinner. He broke out the blue label and we turned on the game. Nobody paid much attention to it, we were too busy discussing the five kingdoms and ten dynasties period and the development of steel during the Song. When the doctor noticed me admiring his bookshelf, he took down a collection of Tang poets and read a few of the hits. He had apparently won prizes for this as a student, and while I understood almost none of the words his delivery impressed me considerably. Some things transcend mere comprehension.

His wife entered with a tray full of noodles and drinking snacks. She laid it out before us and filled our glasses. She made a little small talk and asked me my opinion of Lee Teng-hui. I said I thought he was a gambler and a bit too impressed with the Japanese. She smiled and agreed, likely out of decorum more than anything else, yet it was pleasant to think I offered some insight. She asked if we wanted anything further and then returned with more ice for our scotch. We had not even asked for it. We toasted the Yankees though they had just come up short in the series. I inquired where I could smoke and she led me to the patio. I lit up and stared into the dark ocean. It came into clear focus then.

“What did you come here for?” I asked myself. “To hang around with losers from Manitoba who watch DVDs and eat pizza on the weekends? Last night was kid’s stuff in the tropical swelter. Tonight, you are sitting on leather sofas, drinking top shelf, and having profound cultural exchanges. Air conditioned too.”

“Yeah, it’s not even a close call.” I resolved. From that moment on, I tried to ingratiate myself with the locals and spurned even the most benign exchanges with the other foreigners. Dave and I tore it up in Taipei once or twice, but that was about it. Before long, I had refined my circle to include the civilized exclusively. Stephen encouraged me and introduced me to people. So generous, he even threw his sister at me. Once she entered the picture, things fired on all cylinders. We lapped around the island: getting down in Taijung, making out in Hualien, yielding on the cliffs in Keelung, etc. Things got weird when she expected me to go native. I am built for speed and not for comfort.

I wanted them to accept me, take me by the hand, show me their world. As usual, this came too easy and I took things a bit too far. Fun while it lasted though. After I cast myself into the east China sea, I applied the same strategy where ever I wandered. It is all about the company you keep.

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Remember when we crashed that gallery opening in Soho? We agreed the visuals were passe and the scene too uptight. You passed me the exacto and gave me that look. I took a few slashes to the canvas while you grabbed a three bottles of Moet, knocking over two dozen flutes in the process. What were they going to do? Chase after us in their stilettos and wingtips? We made our point and celebrated on the ferry until I puked over the side. If we got a ticket, I don’t remember.

Then there was that time some friend of a friend got us into that party on 5th. What a staid and tragic crowd. We tried to turn the party out, and when they weren’t with it, I started to scrap with that yuppie in the boat shoes. I threw a few elbows and knocked out a tooth. You swiped the eightball off the table. We blew it in the park and got it on against a tree. Somehow we never got invited back.

You looked dead sexy when we threw on some business threads to boost uptown! We knew they’d never suspect two well-dressed white folks, who obviously looked like they had plenty of coin. I kept them busy trying on shoes in all the wrong sizes and you layered three designer dresses under your clothes. Then I grabbed a bottle of cologne as we cut to the subway. So charged up, we started making out on the train. The person who sat down after us probably needed some tissues.

I loved running short game on the tourists in midtown. Stumbling around acting wasted, though sometimes we actually were. Bump into anyone taking photos and drop an empty flask. If it shattered, demand twenty dollars for our pain, suffering, and lost alcohol. Easiest to pull on the Japanese, so freaked out they could not wait to hand over the cash and be done with us. Did it ten times a night sometimes. Not sure what we did with the money then, though I am sure it was well spent.

It’s too bad the way things went down with Tyson at the needle exchange. He had a line on some Wall street types looking for runners to deliver product, but he did not want to run the risk. We jumped on that didn’t we? We slid through first few runs smoothly, till that twitchy one started bouncing off the walls of his office. I put my forearm to his throat and you grabbed the payment and the powder. Once he passed 0ut, we made for the stairwell so turned on I had to put you on the railing and tear off your panties. Still made it out and security could not track us since we had fake IDs. He probably never lodged a complaint anyway, the loser.

How about that terrible concert in the park? So many lovebirds nestled on blankets with purses and wallets just hanging out. Not enough of a challenge for us. We stocked up serious and got a room. Got down on the meth and each other until we both were bleeding. That might have been the most intense physical experience of the year. Wonder what that guy’s Visa bill looked like after what we did to the room. That’s what you get for taking a date to a free show!

My favorite was the long shot we pulled on those guys from the foundation! Had them throwing money at our supposed outreach program that we stitched together with vacant rooms off Grand Concourse. Battered women and abused children played by whoever we could find on the Hunt’s Point track. A few hundred in signage and some cut and paste grant writing and we had dope money for weeks. Even took a trip to AC and dropped ten on the dice table. Laughed it off and we took that hooker up to the suite. She did not enough cash to recoup, but the look on her face was priceless. Did you cut her loose or did I? I always forget the details.

Was it my fault we got in over our heads with the Latin Kings? I did pay for the first few packages straight up, then when they offered us ounces on consignment we split to Poughkeepsie. I know you recall waking up to Ramone’s pistol in your face. And I’ll never forget how well you laughed it off and turned the tables long enough for me to choke him out. We worked it off in the end, but there were a few weeks there that I kept looking over my shoulder. I think I am still persona non grata in Queens. No big loss there.

Sorry that they picked you up for trashing that place in Chinatown. I told you to hide in the dumpster, but you just had to give the pigs a piece of your mind. So close to the tombs, they booked you straight away. I could not even pick you up at the precinct, so you enjoyed a week in the short-time club at Riker’s. No doubt you were popular with those ladies. Came out so angry when they sprung you, but after getting down in the taxi back we knew it would be alright. Sometimes things were just meant to be.

Well, it seems I must bust you out once again. They probably won’t give you ROR for this last episode. I know I split when shit got hectic, and then called in the fire trucks. I figured the commotion would give you the chance to escape. Your big mouth always needs to get in the last word as always. That’s why I am on this side of the glass and you dressed in orange once again. But don’t worry baby, as your therapist I can get you released to my care. And we will tear it up like always. As long as your parent’s checks keep clearing…

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Burn Unit

Note: 那年夏天很热。这里面还有我的烧伤。

China does things in threes. At least with your cursory cultural knowledge, this is the strongest connection you can make after four months in the country. Three kingdoms, three gorges, the three river’s dam, triads, etc. This and knowing they eat rice in the south and noodles in the north-the rest you will never understand. Yourself most of all.

That summer, China’s three furnaces set ablaze in historic fashion. And they were the only places you could see her. From February to November, she worked on a luxury cruise ship on the Yangtze, taking entitled Western Tourists from Chongqing to Nanjing with a stop in Wuhan in between. At each port, she had a twelve hour window to get off the ship and come to your hotel, if you could find one. Sometimes less, if her mobile rang. It usually did. Brevity is the soul of longing.

Those three cities know a heat and humidity legendary for centuries. That summer, they went for broke. The heat pushed into the high thirties at night. The air grew so dense you were drenched seconds after leaving the dark, air conditioned rooms. The coolies wandering up and down the hills of Chongqing, usually so vigorous, dawdled with their empty carrying polls. Even the miserly fishmongers gave away their rotting crayfish because ice proved too expensive to replace six times a day.  You too felt drained from even the most petty of errands. Next to finding her, they all seemed petty.

In July, you met in Chongqing. Even she suggested skipping the local delicacies. On earlier visits, this had been your typical excursion. The flavors of the region provided satisfaction for both. She, the native, remembered home. You, the interloper, tasted something new and compelling. The hotpot or the broiled fish served as a pleasant diversion from quick bouts of affection, but the heat proved too intense this time for such firey concoctions. So you just lie beneath the fan and hold her, until the brown dawn cast its miserable demand. Light breaks the sky as you guide her down the stone steps to the moorings. Watch her board as the hands remove the lines. Stand on the pier until you lose the ship in the rising eastern sun. Dry your face. Sweat then tears.

You check out and stumble around Liberation Monument in a restless daze. Go ice skating in the shopping mall, just to support the Chinese need to contradict nature. Also to keep cool. The heat is entering the mid forties and everyone carries a water bottle. You buy a coke and in a minute it is tossed. A hawker hands you a business card, advertising the services of “women as delicate as water”. Amused you keep the flier for a bookmark, though only have eyes for one resident of Sichuan. She must be approaching the gorges by now. The loneliness grows as dense as the heat. Even as you merge with the perspiring masses, surrounded by more humanity than even you expected.

Make your way to the train station. The body heat of the thousands in line combines with the afternoon’s scorch for a oppressive experience. The old ladies fan themselves with newspapers and the migrants smoke indifferently, as always.  You began thinking about Xian, since it would cooler up there. Certainly drier on the tip of the desert. The ticket line moves glacially and you cannot stand what must be fifty degrees in the acrid, packed ticket hall. The smell of sweltering bodies grows too intense. Twelve hours more of this on a hard-sleeper with no climate control no longer appeals to you. There’s no difference where you go anyway, she will not be there. No relief in any direction.

Cut to the adjacent bus station. It is a private outfit, so the lines are shorter and move quickly. In thirty minutes, you are on your way to Chengdu. It will be a shorter trip and not much cooler, but you feel mildly excited to see the Sichuan capital. The city is cleaner than Chongqing and the Japanese kids at the hostel find your nihongo amusing. Spend a few days watching the mask changing acts and admiring tableaux from the three kingdoms period. Leave a stone on Liu Bei’s grave in the museum. Tell the ancient general “Stay down, you do not want to see what is going on up here now. Foreigners running aimlessly over the province. Also, it is forty two degrees outside.”

You need to reach Wuhan in twenty-four hours now. The rail shot proves circuitous and muggy. Make friends with a little boy in the bunk next to you. You play a little Weiqi on his traveling set, and teach him it is called Go in English. He is learning your tongue, so you make up another game called “Go” and run up and down the compartments in a makeshift form of tag. He is at about your skill level in both versions. His parents seem grateful you have amused their son on the long ride, but it was really all you could do to take your mind off of the heat. And her.

The family gets out in Zhongxiang as dawn clears the horizon. You have never heard of the place, but are sure it has ten million residents from the looks of it. You spend the next few hours realizing there is no station for Wuhan. There are three, one for each of the three cities that merged during the ROC period. Once again you validate your insight about threes. This is all you have to work with.

You get out at Wuchang. This station lies to the east, perhaps the furthest of the three from where her boat will dock. Grab another coke and stumble down the major thoroughfares with the sun at your back so you know you are headed west, until it rises too high and you must ask the natives. Many are confused, since they do not orient themselves with a compass. Others are scared of the sweaty shirtless barbarian in sunglasses gesturing and mumbling a toneless “xi ma?” So you ask where the river is, but of course there are three of them and the Mandarin name for the one you want is not “Yangtze”. Eventually, you find the ferry and squat with the migrants on the rusty deck. They are nearly naked as the heat demands all pretense be excused for comfort. You are all just brother vagrants now, so you offer them a cigarette. They giggle at the gesture from the Western ghost.You’d laugh but it is too hot.

You get off the boat and stop at a Western hotel along the banks. The other passengers would not be allowed to do this. This is one advantage you have over your fellow strays from the ferry. In this heat, an hour in the air conditioned lobby seems more valuable to you than their fluent Mandarin. A bright hotel clerk determines where you need to go and even writes down the address in characters. Fully refreshed and with a more distinct goal, you hop on the back of a motorcycle and ten yuan later find yourself at the docks where she will arrive in the evening. All is now right with the world.

You find a two-star a few blocks up from the water. Take a thirty minute shower and bask in the darkness and air conditioning. Watch a documentary on CCTV 9 while the sun descends. Wander back to the docks thirty minutes before the appointed time. Drink a beer in the alley with the other roustabouts watching the sun descend. You and she are texting back and forth as always, aggravating the anticipation. Stare into the blue twilight and brown water to will the ship to port. This does nothing. The river’s horizon remains vacant and longing. All too familiar.

The silhouette of the ship is familiar to you now. It emerges with a cooling breeze, and all the anxiety and discomfort washes into the river. She is the first off the ship. The reunion comes only days from parting, but the distance and longing make it feel like a decade. Kiss as night descends. Run away into the streets of Wuhan. Nothing matters now.

The morning finds you eating steamed buns in a still unmanageable thirty-eight degrees. For some reason she is taking you on a detour into the business district. Given how little time she has, you are flattered and confused. Find yourself at a jewelry counter in the Pacific department store. The swim of heat, wine, and love in the morning after makes you dizzy enough that you do not really comprehend the gesture she tries to make, pointing to various rings. Also a saleswoman is shoving a platinum band many sizes too small onto your index finger. Something has to give.

“I don’t really wear rings or jewelry. How about a watch?”

You will learn later that the word “clock” is a homonym for death in Mandarin. You thought that since she deals with spoiled Americans and snooty French tourists all the time she would accept your cultural insensitivity. You are wrong.

“I just wanted to give you something nice. This is not going to work. You do not understand me, or my country. What are you doing here?”

She sneers and storms from the store. Instead of precious ornaments, she buys you an ice cream that melts instantly, much like your heart in this moment. Actually “burns” serves as a more appropriate verb.

The sun is in full fury when she shows you her back at the pier. You try to explain you did not comprehend the gravity of her kindness. It does little to assuage her. You provide one last protest.

“Well, I am glad I felt this. This whole thing. For a long time, I felt nothing at all. Then this spring, all that ended when I found you. So even if we do not meet in Nanjing, or ever again I know I will remember all this.”

Kiss her indifferent cheek as she whips away and onto the deck. You wander north to the train station in Hankou, drenched in sweat and drained in spirit. It is forty-six degrees and you are broken. The scene in the ticket hall is the same maddening swelter as Chongqing, so you take the sleeper bus and weep your way to Shanghai in sunburned agony. The bed is fifty centimeters too short for you. As usual you do not fit. Nor understand.

A year later you will travel back to Chengdu. You and she will be wed on a Thursday morning. The “ceremony” will take ten minutes. It is performed by a bored secretary. The scorch of the city is similarly indifferent. Neither of you will ever wear rings.

Years later, you return to Chengdu for the third time. You take an airplane, internationally. After twenty hours in the air, you step out into the blazing summer heat and catch a cab to the same government building that performed your nuptials. You sign the papers with a trembling hand. Surrender the keys and try to look stoical. Eye contact for the last time. In the taxi back to the airport, you remember China does things in threes. This knowledge provides no comfort.

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