All the Explorers
This is how I see it:
You meet him on the airplane, squeezed together in the tight aisles and killing time before takeoff. You discover your coincidence quickly; he is going to Sichuan on assignment for a travel magazine, you are going to see your family. The flight is long but you make little headway on the work you’ve brought with. Instead, you talk with him.
He has a separate connecting flight to Chengdu, but you give him your number and promise to meet up in the city. You wave goodbye, not knowing if he’ll really call you.
Your friends, who live in Chengdu, meet you at the airport and take you out for dinner. There is laughter and reminiscence and you do not mention the man you spent twelve hours with on the airplane.
Around noon the next day he calls you. He is in his hotel and does not know the city and is wondering if you will be his guide. You say you would be happy to. When you tell your friends, they laugh at you but are also worried.
You came here to see your family, not meet strange men, Jie says.
That’s very true, you say. Now let me into your closet so I can pick out a dress. Jie gets more excited when you say the man looks a few years younger than you. You tell her he’s handsome. Her husband is still wary.
I think you should be careful around Americans, he says. They have corrupt morals.
You remind him that you are now technically an American.
You know what I mean, he says. White men.
You comfort them with your schedule, which you are sticking to. One more night in Chengdu, then off to Dujiangyan to see your family. It is not a big deal, you say.
You meet him outside his hotel, where he is wearing a blue polo and shorts and has a bag slung over his shoulder. You feel like hugging him but think that would be much too forward, so instead you both awkwardly wave and you ask him where he would like to go.
He has read books about places to visit and insists on seeing Anshun Bridge, a historic bridge once described by Marco Polo. Even after you tell him that the bridge is newly built and garishly outfitted to appease tourists, he wants to go see it, though with less enthusiasm. When you get there he is as disappointed as you expected, but he dutifully takes notes for his magazine and transcribes the badly-written English language history that appears on a bronze plaque, a history of explorers and wars and destruction and rebuilding that is still somehow evident through the lack of subject-verb agreement. He remarks that even Marco Polo is misspelled as “Pollo,” as if he was a Spanish chicken, and the two of you begin making fun of the entire bridge, trying to sing along to the dramatic music playing from hidden speakers all around you.
For dinner, you take him to where you always ate during your years studying economics and English at the university. That’s what you tell him, anyway. It’s where you always ate, not where you ate whenever you had the money, or your boyfriend had the money, to do so. You don’t tell him those occasions were rare. It’s not that you want to hide anything, you just don’t want to talk about rough times, long years studying to leave.
He is interested in your home, Dujiangyan, and the historic waterworks built there millennia ago. It is one of the places on his list to explore. You tell him you would love for him to stay there for a few days while you are there, so you can show him the temples, tell him about Li Bing, introduce him to your parents. He seems excited by the idea but is also noncommittal. There may be time after I visit Leshan, he says. You think maybe he wants to go to Dujiangyan, but not with you.
Later, after dinner, he invites you back to his hotel room and, surprised at the offer, you say yes. It is a hotel for foreign tourists, and you think that when you walk in the employees will stare at you, quiet disgust in their eyes. But no one even looks at you. There is no minibar in the room, so he brews a terrible pot of coffee on the small machine that is in the room and you sit with him on the bed. You make love to him, quietly and restrained at first, but convince yourself that you are in an American hotel and no one will know, no one will care because you are also an American and can behave however you want. You stay in his room much longer than you mean to.
While he is in the bathroom, you can’t help but flip open his passport, which is sitting on the TV. He is younger than you thought, 29 to your 37, and you suddenly feel like you have been caught lying, even though you have both been careful not to mention age and that’s not really your fault. Still, you feel that maybe it would be best if you did not see him in Dujiangyan as you planned over dinner. The day was fun and it would be best not to ruin it by stretching out the vacation-fling into awkward, going-to-meet-the-family territory. But when he walks out of the bathroom it is the first thing he mentions and he is clearly excited, not just to see more of Sichuan, but to see you again in the near future. He is certain he will be able to leave Leshan and the southern region a day or two early. So you solidify your plans and write down more names and numbers for him, and then you dress to leave. The two of you kiss in the doorway to his room and he watches as you go down the hallway to the elevator, waving to you as you turn the corner, the gesture so childish it makes you smile.
It is late when you get back to your friend’s house, and she and her husband chastise you. You are too old to behave like this, they say. It’s frightening how little shame you have, they say, how much of a sexual pervert you’ve become and this wouldn’t be a problem if you’d just gotten married like any sensible woman.
You think of telling them that this kind of talk is why you left China, but you do not. You go to their guest room and sleep.
The next morning the subject has been dropped and your friends are polite. They take you to your bus for the short ride to Dujiangyan and they tell you they are happy to have you back, and look forward to seeing you in ten days when you will come back to Chengdu for your flight home. You hug Jie but it is not the warm embrace you received when you arrived.
You take the tourist bus rather than the normal bus because it has air conditioning and will travel faster, without stops. It is only half-filled, partly with Chinese from other parts of the country, and partly with white people you suspect to be Europeans. Unlike Americans, who are fat and seem to know they look ridiculous, these people are slim and appear to take themselves far too seriously. You sit alone, talk to no one, and the ride goes quickly.
At the bus station your parents are waiting. It has been three years since you last saw your parents. There is relief at finally seeing them again, relief in holding them and not just seeing pictures, but there is sadness too, because they look older than the pictures suggested. Again you are reminded that your parents will die and someday there will be no true comfort in coming home. There is the very real possibility that there will be no home at all.
After dinner you tell them that a man will be coming to visit in a few days, a friend who will be writing about Dujiangyan and needs a guide. Your parents are nervous about having a visitor, especially an American. What will he want to eat, what will we have to talk about, do they need to clear it with the party? Eventually, your father agrees with you that they are worrying too much and prepares for his evening stroll.
When your father leaves, your mother lays in. You tell her, no, this man is only a friend. You only just met him on the plane. But that revelation horrifies her more because she can see how interested you are in him. She doesn’t want you marrying an American man. You tell her you only just met him and have no plans for marriage, an idea that horrifies her further. I knew it, your mother says, I knew it. We will never have a grandchild because our daughter is selfish. This argument goes on for a while and is only a repetition of things that have been said over the phone many times before.
The next few days go by quickly, and the mental checklist of things that you want to do is impossible to accomplish, so you focus on the big items. This is the first time you’ve been able to come home since the earthquake and you are surprised by how quickly new buildings have sprouted over the fallen ones. Your friend Lian was teaching in one of the schools that collapsed, one in Pengzhou.
The train ride to Pengzhou isn’t long, and when you arrive you walk up the sloping hill that leads to her school. You find the site and this time are not surprised to see a new school has been built in the same place and all the rubble gone, as if the previous, shoddily built school had never existed, as if the thousands of weak schools that had collapsed never existed. You were hoping to see Lian’s name etched somewhere, a physical representation of her that you can touch, but there is no monument, no list of names for those who died. Even though you did not expect to find a monument, even though you only hoped for it, you are angry, angry that there is no individual recognition for anyone that isn’t Mao or some other dead emperor, angry that everyone else can be forcefully forgotten if that will protect the negligent acts of the government. You lower the flowers you brought, lower them to the ground with your jaw clenched, imagining that some custodian or party official will be along shortly to take them away.
When you stand up and look down the hill you see what you had not seen on your walk up. Many of the buildings that didn’t fall are still cracked, barely held up with temporary supports. The cement slabs that make up the street, which were probably never even, have been roughly hewed down where the edges had been shoved upward by the earth. Steps into the buildings are much more crooked, the families who live there unable to straighten what the earthquake had set askew. Though the school has been rebuilt to cover the government’s mistakes, other buildings are still rubble, weeds growing up between the hard broken blocks that run from former building to former building like the bottom of a stream where water no longer flows. These buildings were in sharp contrast to the new school and the new community centers you saw near the train station.
You think, this is real desperation. Here, this place you left. Everywhere in the world is desperate except for the US. You correct yourself and accept that there is desperation in the US, only it’s incredibly boring and unmoving, no matter how many times films and books and public radio try to convince you otherwise. The US is violent and disdainful and boring.
You feel sick and lightheaded and tired, so you take a long drink from your plastic bottle of water before walking back down, staring ahead and trying not to see what is all around you.
When you get back to Dujiangyan you try to calm yourself and accept what you’ve seen. You go to a movie and tour the city, seeing what has been rebuilt, the temples that remain standing, the people you came back to see. You cook with your mother and teach both of them American card games while watching the DVDs you brought, ones that are hard to find in China. A parade comes through, and you take a few pictures, thinking he would have liked to see it. Your parents had told you about how many tourists now visited your home city, but you are surprised when you see it yourself.
After five days he calls you from the Dujiangyan bus station. You tell him you will meet him at his hotel. When you get there he is sitting in the lobby, his bags splayed around him, his blond hair unwashed and disheveled, his skin slightly darker. He jumps up when he sees you.
It both thrills and calms you to see him again. He embraces you, as you asked him not to do in public when you talked to him the day before. But you let him do it and return the embrace, even going so far as to kiss him. He asks you if Jie is still mad at you, if you got to visit Lian’s school, if your mother gave you grief, and you can’t help but be surprised that he remembered all these things you told him about. You wonder if he wrote it all down in his notebooks, like the facts of your life are just a human-interest piece for his travel magazine. You don’t know that he memorized these things simply because you said them, that everything you had told him continued to circle around in his mind, interrupting his focus when he was supposed to be writing about giant Buddha carvings and new wildlife reserves. You don’t know that he’s been—
He invites you in his room, but you draw the line there, at least for now. He goes into his room to shower and get ready for dinner, and you sit in a chair in the hallway.
You wonder why he is really here. Does he see himself as an explorer, an adventurer, a conqueror? Is he another white man who wishes he could be poor and brown whenever it sounds fun? Back in the US, will you represent China for him? Will you be another plundered artifact? You know you will have to think about these questions and find out for yourself, since he cannot see himself clearly from your brown eyes, since your point of view is, for him, the imperfect mirror of a distant land.
He steps out of his room wearing the same shirt he wore on your first date in Chengdu: a blue polo. You think of a children’s game, one you learned in America.
Marco, you say to him.
He does not give you the proper response and say Polo. He looks at you quizzically.
Who’s Marco? he says.
You laugh at him and tell him what you meant. He seems relieved that you don’t think his name is Marco.
You accuse him of something. He denies it. Then you sit him down in the hallway chair and you ask him to do something difficult.
Now tell me what I got wrong. Tell me what I missed.
Chris Schacht is a graduate of the MFA program at New Mexico State University. His work has also appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review.