Saturday, June 02, 2007

Learning to Count (Taipei, 1989)

The Taoyuan International Airport was packed with people and smelled of garlic. For the first time in my life, I felt tall. It was Double Tenth Day, the national day of the Republic of China. On the eighteen-hour flight from New York, Dave and I had moved beyond xie xie, and could now also say "you're welcome" and "excuse me" in Mandarin.

We took a bus into downtown Taipei. I looked at the street signs and couldn't read them. My brain perceived the symmetry and elegance of the characters, and strained to go beyond form to meaning, but for now it was all appearance. I saw a Ronald McDonald statue with an arm open in welcome outside the familiar golden arches.

The first night, we slept on cots in the YMCA. The next morning a cockroach as big as a mouse scuttled across the floor. We set out for breakfast. We walked past a 7-11 and were drawn inside by the familiar logo, but inside everything was different - pots of eggs boiling in tea, pork buns wrapped in plastic, dried squid, and red bean drinks in cans. I was hungry and I bought a glazed bun that had a chunky greenish paste inside.

My skin felt sticky in the sub-tropical humidity. Because it was cheaper and more comfortable, we moved to the South Asia Hotel, furnished in purple and pink and in the red light district. We ignored the cries of women next door in the Australian filmmaker's room. Or maybe it was the cats yowling in the alley.

Dave and I rode down the elevator in the morning with a Filipina with hair askew and thick blue eyeshadow. We walked past the little tables where they'd serve pork noodle soup, and to the market stalls where stall owners were frying giant meat dumplings (guotie) on enormous pans. We'd get six or eight of them in a pink plastic bag.

When we bit into them, grease dripped down our chins. We'd practice saying the numbers in between bites. They were full of oil but they were good. They anchored us to the place. They made us love the whores we lived among. They made us know how to count to ten. At least we knew something. At least that.

To get anywhere else, the concierge downstairs had to write our destination on a piece of paper. Still a child, I'd hand it to our taxi driver, and off we'd go.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Integrity (Boston, 1989)

Yossi was number two in karate in Israel, and he was saving money to go to Japan and study Zen meditation. I didn’t let myself really get to know him, so instead he was my spy, my security guard whom I seduced to stop guarding the youth hostel for a few dark moments under the moon, my Jew who looked like an Arab, an Indian with something Eastern European about his eyes, more religious than I was. He showed me karate moves, and his eyes were serious. Every day he went out to the wadi alone to practice.

There was a limit to how much I could tempt him, and I wanted his discipline.

He wanted me to come back to Israel, and because he wanted me to, I said I would.

I went back to Boston.

Near the end of the school year, my fellow students were interviewing at investment banking and accounting firms. I didn’t want that kind of job. I decided I should teach English in Japan, until I was at a party where a woman who had spent the previous summer in Taiwan convinced me I could get a lot of work teaching there, plus learn Chinese. Chinese was totally new to me, and was supposed to be hard, so I decided that was a good idea.

After graduation, I worked in a restaurant at Porter Square where a friend of mine from Tufts was the bartender and he’d sneak me tequila shots. My forearms got strong, and I could hold four plates in one arm. My apron was stuffed with cash.

"Are you an artist?" my customer asked, in front of his wife, as I set down their bill.

"Hmmm?" I asked, acting like I didn't really hear him, pushing my shoulders back as I gathered his plate.

"You’re left-handed," he told me. "You must do something creative."

I smiled in as cute and collegiate a way as I could, hoping he’d leave me a big tip, and I could buy my one-way ticket to the Republic of China by the next week. I was swimming every day and knew my 21-year-old body looked okay. The wife just looked at her plate, though there wasn't much of her buttered cod left.

With four plates stacked on one forearm, I raced up the stairs to where Chris was at the bar. I remembered the night on University Ave. where we had fallen asleep on the sofa with my arm around his chest, but we had done nothing. His family had a house on the Vineyard and he couldn't trust his father. He smiled at me and I thought there was always something about bartenders, and without looking at what he was doing he had poured another shot and slipped it across the bar.

When I went back to the table the couple would be gone.

The signed credit card receipt had a blank tip line and no total was written in, which could have been by accident. The guy had seemed so friendly. My throat tasted of Bushmill's whisky, my forearm throbbed, and all I could think of was getting out of that stuffy Boston summer and on that China Air flight to Taipei, fast.

"Xiexie, xiexie," I whispered, to all those who sent me soaring aloft.