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The In-Between Guy

I went to miserable high school in a miserable suburb of Southern California. I imagine it was much the same as other suburban high schools, socially at any rate. We won at swimming and lost at basketball. You are welcome to infer demographics from that.

It took an interminable amount of time to graduate, particularly as I had one eye on the door the entire time. Not just on the door, but on the other side of the country. I pined away for Manhattan and let everyone know it. So even the most romantically idealistic teenage girl could not consider a relationship with me as more than a time killer. That a relationship has a future is important, so I am told. I am not very good at such things.

My obvious disdain for my surroundings did not engender me much popularity, and this coupled with my general cynicism made me a non-consideration when it came to dating. Particularly as an underclassman, I spent the weekends playing video games with my loser friends or studying film by myself. That should have helped me develop some moves with the ladies, but at fourteen I lacked the courage and self-awareness to put anything into practice. Not that I had anyone to practice with. Not regularly anyway.

Though I became well known, I did not precisely fit in with any clique. I took honors classes, but did not study hard enough to fit in with those studious types. I landed character parts in the theater, yet had no enthusiasm for the gossip and flamboyance that served as currency in that circle. I ran track, but since I smoked pot and cigarettes, took college courses, and acted, my teammates deemed me a stoner, nerd, and fag respectively. And I never fit in with the stoners because I never cared for their music and needed to keep my wits about me for the aforementioned AP classes, theater productions, and relay races. A more socially adept teenager might have turned this outsider status into sexual attraction, but I remained unable to generate more than disinterested acknowledgement. Needless to say this did not translate into a robust sex life.

Still, I had enough style, verve, and attitude that I attracted in a couple of girls every year. I’d hear rumors that so-and-so was into me, but remained scared of what her friends would say. Or if I asked whatshername out she’d say yes-if only I had a car. The lack of a car severely impedes a suburban sexual awakening.  After all, that’s where most adolescent encounters go down. Second base was not happening on my Schwinn.

Being a mildly attractive outcast whose cache devalued with increased public knowledge, I became the “in-between guy”. If a comely classmate of mine found herself drunk at a party while in-between boyfriends, I instantly became exponentially more acceptable. With no commitment demanded and plausible deniability assured, I provided an outlet for sexual frustration or experimentation that could be quickly discarded come Monday morning when the social order restored itself.

So for a few hours on Saturday night, I might find my hands up the shirt of some girl from the track team or in the underwear of a theater tech. Even knowing I could never brag about it to my loser friends, I gladly took what I could get and kept my mouth shut. After all discussing it would serve me little, other than ensure I’d not get another shot a next week’s party. If she was still unattached that of course, and that was seldom the case. In my whole career, I only had two repeat customers. I attributed this to needing the status of a boyfriend, rather than a reflection of my performance. I never heard any complaints, since their mouths stayed shut too.

Gradually, I became known for this pattern. By the end of my junior year, being the “in-between guy” proved almost a tired joke. Whenever a prominent couple predictably broke up, I’d get threatened by the boyfriend not to perform my usual tricks on his ex. I seldom heeded these warnings and took a couple of beatings when caught with my pants down, literally. At one memorable houseparty, I found my lips around a sexy underclassman when her boyfriend arrived. He tried to crash through the door of the toilet. I, ever the gentleman, helped her escape out the bathroom window. I think they got back together before my black eye healed. Such were the wages of the “in-between” guy.

By the time I’d gotten my college acceptance letters from the east coast, I’d mastered a routine. Gossip came back regarding who was recently unattached and where they planned to party on the weekend. If I could secure an invite, I’d be sidling up to her after a few drinks. The more polished the approach, the more laughable it became. Eventually it grew tedious even for me.

On night towards graduation, I decided to put it to one of my targets. Mid-session, with her breasts exposed, I asked her if she wanted to be my girlfriend. She giggled and whispered, “For what? the next two months? And what for? This is what you’re good at!”

At that, I stopped and pulled her bra back on.  She asked what I was doing. I told her I wasn’t good at it any more. I stumbled out of the bedroom and made my way outside. I smoked cigarette and walked home. I did not hook up again until I got to university in New York. Within three weeks, I had a regular girlfriend. It did not last through the semester though. I wasn’t good at that either.


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Photos Oubliées

I had an envelope of photographs from that time. During a recent move, they tumbled out of a suitcase and spilled out onto the floor of the apartment I was vacating.  Scattered among the blurry images of the Hong Kong skyline, crowded night market streets, and the Wan Chai ferry,  Stephanie stared up at me.  I paused for a moment, considered how long I’d kept them, then threw them all in the trash.  I had to travel light, and some things are too heavy to keep around. Besides I’d rather avoid blurry photos contradicting my blurry memories. Less distinct means less despair.

The stamps in my expired American passport indicate I went to Hong Kong five times that year. I must have then, except in my memory they all merge together into the same experience, each trip essentially indistinguishable from the others. Each time I’d land at Hong Kong International, take the A11 bus to Causeway Bay, check into some hostel’s semi-private dorm, do a little shopping, then proceed to slosh around from convenience store to bar to club until the sun broke over the harbor. Then recuperate with some noodle soup and take it easy before doing it all over again. A few days later, I’d head back to one of the islands where I lived: Taiwan, Honshu, Manhattan, whatever my ticket said, with nothing remarkable to show for it usually. Perhaps a funky t-shirt or strange bruises from misadventure. Even less to show for it now that those pictures are gone.

I cannot exactly recall which visit this was. Of the five I took that year, it was in the middle somewhere. It definitely was not the first, when I had gone for New Year’s eve, so I suppose it was the second or perhaps the third trip. I similarly don’t recall how long I had already been there by the night of the photo, but it was probably the second or third day of a four day trip. I do remember that I woke in the afternoon, feeling dizzy and hungover, though this too was typical. Could not handle the crowds and wasn’t in the mood to shop anyway. Though there’s no import duty in Hong Kong, dealing with the hungry mobs and haggling vendors will tax your spirits. And I needed to keep them up if I was to salvage the day. And the evening, more importantly.

So I washed and threw on some clothes that I’d bought earlier in the trip. New ultrasuede trousers (North Point) and a weird Japanese t-shirt (Causeway Bay) under a leather blazer (Kowloon Tong). All were black and all served me well over the years, though not as well as they would that night. I hit the streets and drank a coke from a glass bottle. Vitality restored, I began to march. Never have a destination on urban holidays. Everything is right in front of you, and you might miss something if you plan anyway. Or someone.

I tramped through Central and Admiralty, admiring the sights and getting my bearings as I thought about where I was. Soon found myself in the Victoria Aviary, watching the painted sparrows dart under the steel mesh searching for a way out into the sky. This was Hong Kong, where signs read “way out” instead of “exit” and they speak Cantonese instead of Mandarin. I wondered if their linguistic differences were equivalent to those found in British and American English, and if the challenges negotiating between these two versions of Chinese were at all comparable to my confusion when speaking with commonwealthers (except Canadians). Then I wondered if the sparrows knew that their admirers were trapped inside their cage as well. Finally, I pondered if admiration was a cage in an of itself. Then I stopped thinking altogether and tried to get into the peaceful spirit of the bird sanctuary. Five minutes seemed like enough to gather myself for the evening that had begun to fall. With the sky darkening, I felt ready to chase the night’s adventures. Again this was SOP for HK. Every night, a new series of sins to misremember and write about later. Though this one remains very clear. Obvious why.

I tramped out of the park and stopped at the nearest convenience store. I did not have a SIM card for the region and felt disconnected. I called my one-time finace with a phone card, but I could not get through to her. She probably had her phone off-it being so early in NYC at the time. Or maybe she did not feel like picking up a call from Asia. She’d know who it was, certainly, unless she’d made Cantonese friends I was unaware of. Since I don’t recall exactly which trip to HK this was, I similarly cannot recall just how much our relationship had disintegrated by that point. On it last legs for sure though. Again it was obvious why.

As the reality of my detachment set it, I decided it was time to start drinking. The convenience stores in Hong Kong have an evil deal when it comes to public refreshment. It’s like they want you to stumble around faced, so you can be a target for pickpockets, sharks, or pimps. At least in my fevered imagination, that’s their plan. Likely they just want to sell you as much of their stock as they can. Anyway, the deal works like this: one can of beer is 9HKD but two is 12HKD. So naturally I’ll walk out with four and consume them on the ferry. Drinking on public transportation is legal in civilized countries, though its social acceptance varies widely. The practice is encouraged in Japan, considered bad form in Korea, and unspeakable in China. In all three cases though, it is entirely legal, presumably because few Asians are violent drunks unlike some other cultures. We cannot have it like that in New York. Third time, it is obvious why.

I cracked the first San Miguel while slowly making my way from back to Wan Chai. To cross the street, I walked up a flyover and skipped along the elevated platform. Again, in Hong Kong it’s a “flyover” and not an “overpass”. One also will “let a flat” instead of “rent an apartment”. There are countless other unfamiliar expressions to negotiate. Always are.

Rather than descend to the traffic, pedestrian or vehicular, I stayed above the streets and followed a cement track that weaved across the streets, narrowed into buildings, and opened again onto wide platforms. Under my feet, the cement turned to marble, then carpet, then tile, and cement again as I cut successively through an office lobby, a shopping mall, a fresh market, and an outdoor plaza, never once returning to ground level. All the flyovers merged and diverted, expelling determined professionals creating rush hour in every direction. Fascinated by their energy, I stopped to lean against a cement pillar in a b-boy stance. I was too old to pull it off, but young enough not to care. All the suits whisking past made me lonely and jealous for a life I had led once had back in New York. More than an ocean away by then.

Took out my second beer and slugged it down in defiance of their purposeful velocity. In the thrust of office workers blazing by me, I noticed their faces were all creased in the same stressful determination found in business districts the world over at day’s end. Save for the uniformity of these commuters’ cultural extraction, it could have passed for midtown Manhattan at six pm. The pace and uniform entirely familiar, even if the faces weren’t. The feeling of two beers at six pm felt familiar enough too. Only added to my loneliness. That’s what familiarity does in a foreign place. Makes longing distinct.

I opened the third beer as I boarded the ferry to Kowloon. Like a good tourist, I sat backwards facing Hong Kong Island to take in the skyline. It grew broader and smaller as we tugged north. So did the sunset, dissolving into an azure haze over the harbor. I couldn’t tell you which held more splendor at that moment. Once the city lights came on though, it was no contest. Humanity’s structures tower over the chaos of the natural world. Symmetry always strikes a more elegant figure than entropy. To the civilized at least.

On Kowloon side, I proceeded to the viewing balcony to the east of the ferry terminal. I needed to take in more of skyline and kill my last soldier. Night had descended entirely now and the buildings blazed with additional neon illumination for Spring Festival, celebrated a few weeks earlier.  Honoring the year of the monkey, little red primates climbed the edges of the Bank of China Tower and the HSBC building. They blinked on and off in sequence, ascending the towers every fifteen seconds or so, only to fall off and climb again in a different color. I wondered how much they paid a few illegals to risk the drop just to string those lights up there. They did a decent job to be sure, not enough to keep the effect from growing cheesy after a few cycles though. The “world’s best skyline” (and there is consensus for this) really does not require ornamentation and I found the effect gaudy. I appeared to be in the minority though, as throngs of tourists surrounded me, snapping away with digital cameras. Little Asian girls threw up peace signs as they are wont to do in photos, while older couples commemorated the moment without posing, or even smiling as far as I could tell. I hoped they would at least smile later when they looked back and remembered their trip. Then again, I didn’t when I came across my photos recently. For the final time, why shall become obvious. Here she comes…

“Could you take my picture sir?” An accented female voice rose up behind me. I spun about and almost knocked into the speaker. Thankfully, she giggled rather than screamed. At that moment, it could have gone either way. Usually does.

As I staggered back to regain my balance, I tried to pass it off as a flourish. When this yielded more giggles, I took a bow. My eyes then focused to figure out who my antics had amused. Just another tourist? If only it had been.

Tall and slender, though hardly a vision in her casual attire: an over-sized blue rugby shirt with white stripes, cinched with a belt like a miniskirt over black capris. Breasts small, legs tight, and curls brown, sure, I’d take her picture. Why not? I can think of several reason now.

“It would be my honor, however, I need you to make a difficult decision first!” I spoke as my eyes ran across her form. Probably I did not pull this off as causally as her attire. Not that I had any designs at this point. Or ever do in such situations. Or in general.

“And what would that be?” She replied, still smiling. Now I had to come up with something. Luckily, improvisation I can do. Planning not so much.

“Do you want a picture of yourself or of the city? If you use the flash, you will come through against a black background. If you don’t flash, the city will come through, but your image will be dark. And what a pity that would be!” I spoke from experience, having already taken a few pictures at that exact place on an earlier trip. The results had disappointed me, and I did not want her to be. At least not yet.

“They don’t seem to care.” She remarked, gesturing toward the sea of Asian tourists flashing away at each other.

“They won’t be happy when they get home, I promise. Unless they just want to take over-exposed portraits without respect to their location or geography. I am sure that’s not what you want, as photogenic as you might be.” I should have considered that I was speaking to a non-native and used less complicated terms. I should have considered a lot of things. A few beers and indifference being my only excuse at that moment. At most moments actually.

“Can you take one of each then?” She said impatiently, probably regretted the request already. She wanted a photo, not a slurred conversation after all. I could not let her off the hook quite so easy though. Nor myself as it turned out.

“Comment t’appelles?” I asked, considering her accent and taking a shot at international diplomacy. Not that I had any other tongue at my disposal. My facile grasp of the French language has seldom paid off in my life. This was the exception that proved the rule.

“Stephanie. Et toi?” She smiled offering her hand. I tossed off an ‘enchente’ and kissed her hand ironically. I introduced myself and proceeded to take her camera. Feeling very charming at that point, I encouraged her to pose ridiculously. She indulged me with an arched back and tossed her hair about with her right hand. I clicked away with a few flashes and the most cliched words of encouragement I could come up with at the time. “Hung Hao! Mad sexy-you’re a tiger! Tres jolie, tres chic! Kawaii!” She continued to giggle, until she needed to support herself with the railing at the water’s edge. I decided we were now old friends, and proceeded accordingly. I had nothing to lose. Except my loneliness.

I handed back her camera and we surveyed the photos. There was one that we both agreed was the best. I admired her other pictures of the city and made a simple proposal. I’d pay for a two copies of all the good pictures, if I could keep one set. I had not brought a camera with me, so this would serve as photos of my trip too. She would actually be helping make my trip more memorable! In so many ways she would.

She agreed to my plan, so we darted up Nathan road until we saw the first of the hundreds of Kodak signs that dot that tourist thoroughfare. I selected two copies of the shots I had taken by the water and a few others of HK street scenes and Stephanie smiling. It only cost a few dozen dollars Hong Kong, and at least an hour to process. I had counted on this to buy me some more time with her, though that was as far as I had considered. Anything further would be planning. Can’t do that.

“Well, what should we do now?” Stephanie asked, reading my  mind and slurping down the last of my beers. We stood in front of the photo kiosk. Chinese couples and elderly tourists wandered past us, some taking notice of the two tall, incongruous foreigners drinking beer and speaking in loud voices on the corner. Apparently, we shared an affect if not a lingua franca. Commonplace indifference and indifference to the commonplace, both ran through our blood. Or at least they did that night. And I have evidence of the fact. Or at least I used to.

I asked if she had eaten, and when she replied no I took her by the beer-free hand. We cut north towards Mong Kok along one of the diagonal lanes that slash across Tsim Sha Tsui. A Macanese place with a steam table out front used a fan to spread the scent of its rice noodles and curried shrimp into the alley. The tables were plastic and the menu just a pink page, a lamentated grease stain with Chinese on one side and English on the other. I pondered the Chinese and asked in French if she wanted me to translate. She smirked and gave me a love tap, rattling off some French slang I could not follow precisely. I rose, grabbed a large beer out of the fridge behind the bemused middle aged waitress, and cracked it with an opener that hung from twine off the table. Steffanie flipped two of the glasses that sat upended in the center of the table. We clinked glasses, I said “salut” while she said “cheers”. The absurdity of it all inspired another spasm of laughter. I decided then to put my French away and play to my strengths. Have so few after all.

Under the harsh industrial florescent lighting, we finally got a decent look at each other. She seemed a few years younger than I, and I probably came across as the inebriate I was. In spite of this, a flash of interest came across when we made eye contact. This encouraged me to proceed with my foolishness. God looks after us I am told. Not watching closely though.

“What’s a nice girl like you doing in place like this? And with such questionable company?” I inquired, and drained the small glass. She filled it up for me, then just started sipping from the bottle. We were comfortable enough in places like this. And with each other. At least for the moment.

“Visa run. The place I work for does not want to sponsor me for the long term, so every three months or so I have to cross the border. Then I return with another three month pass. It’s kind of fun, but the train takes too long.” She explained, assuming I understood the nuances of Mainland Chinese visas. I did not at the time, but would grow familiar with them years later. Far too familiar.

“Going home isn’t possible I suppose. So how long do you stay when you come?” I wondered aloud, thinking this woman seemed a bit young for the full expatriate life. Even though it takes all kinds. Learned that much later though.

“Back to Marsailles? I can barely afford to come here! Besides the whole point was to get out here. Too much to see, too much to learn.” She waxed with some sincerity. Or so it seemed.

“For me there’s too much to eat, too much to drink.” I countered. My own version of sincerity.

“And so many girls to photograph, right?” She finished and tapped me again. Old friends indeed.

Her visits were even shorter than mine, forty-eight hours or less, and punctuated with visits to government offices and visa processors. Then it was back to Jiangxi provence, where she taught English at university somehow. I asked how she could teach English being a non-native herself. She replied that the couldn’t get any native speakers to do it, the salary was too low and the visa situation too dodgy. I knew roughly what they paid in rural China, and with that I decided to pick up the check. Who says chivalry is dead? I do. This was gluttony.

I think we were holding hands by the time we crossed harbor again. We’d been jabbering away since taking the photos, yet somehow the gentle rocking of the ferry silenced us as we took in the architectural masterpieces. I rested my arm on her shoulder, but kept my eyes forward watching Wan Chai come into view. I felt her warmth through the sleeve of my jacket. And that was enough for now. Should have been anyway.

Stopped for a glass of wine at an expat place in Wan Chai. Neither of us were feeling that place though. I asked if she knew anything better. At the time I was not as versed in HK’s nightlife as I would be later. Have the scars to prove it now.

“Have you tried the escalator?” She asked. Hong Kong famously has the world’s longest escalator that takes pedestrians partway up the peak, though it is not continuous having to stop for the streets that zigzag the hillside. I told her I had ridden parts of it but not the entire thing. Even though I had, I was not about to spoil the promise of a long ride up. Plus I had wanted to check out the mid-levels where all the yuppies party. Pretty buzzed by then, I had enthusiasm for just about anything that would extend the evening. This was the fruition of my traveling philosophy realized. In flesh and booze.

“Are you ready to take it all the way up?” She winked, yanking me out of the expat wine bar and smashing a glass as we exited. I insisted we pick up a couple of beers at a convenience store first. Then armed with two more tall boys, we snaked around the alleys until we found the first part of the escalator. We were loud, boisterous, and hilarious so our fellow passengers gave us dirty looks. We cracked wise on the Chinese, the English, the expats, and each other. I decided to stay away from the French though. Too easy a target and might kill the mood. Besides the French are okay in my book. Particularly that night.

We played ridiculous game with each other as we shuffled up the hillside. I’d pretend to climb the steps and stumble almost kissing her, then grabbing her hips for mock support. She’d stand on a step above me, resting her arms on my shoulders pretending to point things out behind me, then smacking me if I dared turn to look. Of course, when we got off each stage of the escalator we replaced our beers. By the time we reached the mid-levels, my hand was in her hair and the skyline had begun to sway, as they usually did by that point in the evening. Particularly that night.

As we exited the moving staircase, there was some loud music coming from up the street. Steffanie pulled me up the incline toward the pulsing percussive place. Not really looking at anything but each other, we knocked into a bouncer. I straightened her up and we made giggling eye contact with him. There wasn’t a line, as the place was kind of cheesy anyway, but she dragged me in. Didn’t take much for her to send me forward. Particularly that night.

There was a Filipino cover band on an elevated platform and a collection of mixed couples at tables. The white men looked bored and uncomfortable, while their younger Asian dates bopped their heads and looked eagerly at each other. This apparently passed for exciting nightlife for this crowd, and I mentioned the fact to Steffanie. She tossed off another sarcastic comment, and I agreed that we were both way too cool for this scene. I suggested we still have a drink before moving on. After all when would were ever be back there? So far, not once in the flesh. In memory, regularly.

No matter how passionate you feel about music, any kind of music, life limits the amount of truly transcendent melodic moments you can hope to experience. The first time you attended the symphony, the first time you got stoned “really heard” Jimi Hendrix, or dancing to “your song” at your wedding reception, seldom come the moments wherein music delivers such a profound emotional thrust that you feel transported. That night, in that cheesy expat bar, Steffanie and I enjoyed the most singularly hilarious medley of early nineties pop hits we nearly keeled over the bar. By the time the lithe Fillipina singer sincerely strutted from “Two Princes” into “Ice Ice Baby”, we were holding onto each other for support. I think I kissed her for the first time as we stumbled to the floor. We then danced away with complete abandon, kissing and slamming into each other with drunken abandon. When the entire dance floor clears a space for you, you know you are having the best time of anyone in the club. At least that what you tell yourself.

We stumbled out into the jagged roads of the midlevels. I thought we should try for the peak, but grew dizzy and could not find the escalator again. Somehow we uncovered something better. There is a park about halfway up the mountain, and I never found it again despite trying on repeated visits. The best way I can describe its location would be to the east of the club district of the midlevels, on level with the sixtieth floor of the Bank of China building. The proximity to the skyscrapers felt so intimate that we could count the windows. From the bench where we sat, it seemed like we could reach out and touch the Island’s tallest structures. The glow of streetlamps and flourescent bulbs wafted up from the surface streets, mixing with the new year’s neon that adorned the buildings into a haze of lumencense. The towers, the light, the hillside, it was all too much inspiration not to demands the inevitable. I reached my arm around her  back and drew her toward me.  Thrusting my hand into her brown curls, I found the right angle for her lips and they parted slightly. We found a drunken rhythm and clutched ourselves together. I grew aroused by the pressure, opened my eyes and took in the splendor. As far as nights in Hong Kong went, this was pretty much as good as it ever got for me. The towers, the lights, the booze, her tongue, her scent, all made my heart blast in my ears and my blood coarse through my extremities. She broke away when she felt it. And it was all downhill from there. Literally, as we were halfway up the peak.

Somehow, that would have to be enough. I took her back to her hostel and kissed her goodnight. She had already described the friends she had come down with, two Canadians who I did not feel like meeting. Sex was out at my hostel too, since it was so late I would have to have the owner unlock the place and he would no doubt object to me bringing a girl back to my semi-private. In retrospect, I have lamented not being more aggressive in that glorious park. Still, the twenty minutes we spent there inspired me enough. Perhaps to have gone further would have cheapened the memory. Or perhaps these are the sour grapes of cowardice.

We made our way slowly down the hillside. By the time we reached Wan Chai, the ferry had stopped running. Both tired and worn out from drinking, dancing, and running around hand in hand, I spotted a mini bus that read Mong Kok. It would have been gentlemanly to escort her back, but my place was in Causeway Bay on Hong Kong side and she stayed at the notorious Chungking Mansions on the Kowloon side. I asked her if she wanted me to take her back and when she demurred, I swiped her on the bus with my card and kissed her good-bye. I watched her pull away into the roadway that led to the harbor tunnel, then turned back toward my place. Feeling thirsty, I grabbed one last beer at a market stall. Then I amble toward my place in Causeway, just as the sky turned purple in anticipation of the dawn. The night manager unlocked the door and remarked that I always seemed to come in at this time. He was basically correct, which is why I cannot remember which visit this one precisely was. Except that it was the best one.

I awoke in the afternoon as per usual. After the usual toilet, I spirited out into the fading sunlight. Drinking a cold can of coffee, I felt more drained than usual. The previous evenings activities flashed over my mind. Dug my hands in my jacket pocket and came up with the receipt. I picked the photos up and glanced at them, wondering how I could get them to her. I stopped by Chungking Mansions, before realizing she told me she would have checked out by this time. So I made my way back to the ferry and spent the evening being hit on by prostitutes and doing the whop at a nightclub in North Point. Wasn’t nearly as inspiring, but when the sun rose I returned to the hostel and packed my bag. I kept the photos in that front pocket for over five years, apparently. When the reappeared recently, I decided they could never do any justice nor could my blurry memories of that encounter. And neither was worth holding onto. Again, I like to travel light. Some things are too heavy to keep around.

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Excess Baggage

Note: Cette histoire est vraie pour la plupart. Je ne sais pas pourquoi dix ans plus tard j’ai ressenti le besoin de l’écrire. J’ai probablement voulais juste arrêter d’y penser. Pourtant, ce serait impossible …

We woke up in Prague. We’d tried to make up on the promenade. And the gallery. And the hotel. Which is where the sun had just cracked the window, laying bare the futility of our final session. At least the light made that much clearer.

The night passed without sleep. Our reunion passed without resumption. At least without resuming anything like what we had before. So there was not a whole lot to say as we dressed and packed. We checked out and took a taxi to the station. With time to kill, we stepped into an internet cafe. I checked my flight status. She checked her email, presumably to communicate something to whatever man she had waiting for her. I had no one to greet me where I was going, save the customs official. I did not even have a place to stay. Not this bothered me much.  Other things bothered me a lot more.

I’d asked her if I could return at the beginning of the trip. She said she’d think it over during our week in Europe. I had not asked again, as our estrangement grew evident and palpable as our week together lapsed into despair. We dragged each other across the continent, thinking each change of scenery would change something inside. Never did as it never does. When something dies.

We boarded the bus and spoke in ellipses about the future. We tried to stare at the shards instead of the entire broken thing, as though this would make things more understandable. Like a paleontlologist trying to discern an entire epoch with a single tooth and bone, we sifted through the years and the changes trying to identify where precisely it went wrong. As though this would provide some comfort. When machinery breaks down, it becomes a monument. Etching the death date was all that remained for us to do. Today would be that day.

The bus pulled onto the motorway. A light snow fell as we crossed into Germany. At a truck stop, I smoked a cigarette and had a conversation in French with a senior gentleman going east. I had not spoken the language in years, so between this and my sleep deprivation I could barely get past introductions and destinations. I might as well have had the same conversation with her at that point. That point being that of strangers, heading in opposite directions. Riven toward opposite ends of the earth, literally.

She refused to get off the bus, as though willing it forward to the point of arrival. She listened to her music and flipped through a book, while I peered out the fogged window onto the autobahn. We caught snatches of sleep as the day wore on. I whimpered at one point and she woke me up. If out of concern or embarrassment, I remain unsure. One in the same by then.

Paris’ bus depot lay on the east side of the town. I had a flight in six hours, hers in twelve. I asked if she wanted to check in somewhere for the duration. I did not really seek another passionless round of physicality, and she knew this would be pointless too. Instead, we locked our bags at Gare du Nord and walked around the city for a few hours. Drank a glass of wine at a brasserie and had another heated exchange about whose fault it all was. I claimed the long term blame, but felt the holiday’s misery was mostly her doing. And that’s all that was left to do, to decide which head would hang lower as we went our respective ways. Her west, and I east. She would return to her job, our old place, and the other familiar confines. I was cast upon the wilderness. Given our measures of guilt, it seemed like a just sentence for us. A sentence just for us.

We had a final meal together near the station. Like the entire holiday, it fell so far below expectations I found myself wondering how the French acquired their culinary reputation. When it mercifully ended, I threw down the rest of my euros. I told her to keep the rest since she would be staying a bit longer. I could not spend them where I was going. Not that I knew where that was exactly. I knew it would not be home. Not that I knew where that was exactly.

I thought we would part at the cafe. That would have been more painless. As I rose and grabbed my bag, she reached for my free hand. Loose at first, I tightened the grip and helped her up. We stepped out of the place and into the square that way. Sitting before the station, a beggar lay crumpled in the snow on the sidewalk. With her free hand, she took the last of my euros and dropped them into his box. So everything I gave her would be left behind on the continent that lay between us. Much like our love.

I had bought a round trip ticket on the way into town. We descended to the platform, still holding hands. We stood there in silence, looking at the tiles and tracks below. I released her hand and looked up at her. Like a cliche straight out of film, she looked around and her eyes welled up with tears. The gust from my train’s arrival ripped them from her lashes and onto the platform. Her hands still covered her face as I pulled away into the night. In that moment, I did not know which of us I hated more. Now I do.

She had given me some of my old things to take back. As I tried to check onto my flight, I was told my bag was now overweight. They told me I would need to pay 20 euros for each kilo over the limit. With no money left, I made my way to the trash can. I zipped open my bag and tossed out everything she had brought me. I fought back my own tears as I surrendered the shoes, sweaters, and books that simply were not worth keeping. Not worth the money. Or the sentiment.

I returned to the counter. I explained to the attendant that I had removed my “excess baggage”. I was returning to Asia with less than I came with now. Having lost time checking in, I rushed to my flight and the middle seat that awaited me. Sitting down, I finally had a chance to smirk over the metaphor. The obviousness of it all exhausted me. Yet sleep still did not come.

Still I lucked out on the flight, sitting next to a Japanese girl flush from a solo Parisian adventure. She had also booked a few days layover to shop in Hong Kong. By the time we landed at HKG, I had convinced her to stay in the same hostel as I had booked. We spent two jet lagged days in each others’ company, never separating until doing so forever at the airport. I wonder if she remembers my name. I cannot recall hers. There were no tears when we parted.

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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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