Morning – I still have not heard from the hotel in Ningbo. I told my contact there I have a few days off. Now would be a convenient time for me to take a train there to check it out to see if I want to be in residence. I decide to call the hotel again. The person at the desk barely speaks English. She wants to know what room he is in. I tell her he works for the hotel. I tell her he is an employee. I am a performer I tell her. I have been in contact with him. I would like to talk to him. I do not think she understands. ‘What is his room number?” she asks me again.
I hear Muzak. Maybe, she understood me, maybe not. I hang on the line. If all else fails, I could go to the office and have the Sofa Negotiator talk to them. The Sofa Negotiator is leaving the school at the end of the term. She knows that I am looking for other employment. She would call in a covert manner.
The operator comes onto the line. I think I may be speaking to a different person but I cannot tell. She asks me who I am calling. I tell her Allen Lu – L-U. I hear Muzak again. I debate whether or not to hang up or stay on the line. The Muzak fades in and out of static. I almost feel as if I am in another dimension and the Muzak is the only thing holding me to the dimension in which I am now residing. The phone goes quiet. I assume I have lost the connection. The phone has gone dead it seems. I start to hang up but then I hear a voice.
“This is Tyson.”
“I am the performer who you have been emailing.”
“I am still interested in performing at your hotel and I have not heard from you.”
“I sent you an email yesterday morning,” he says. I cannot tell if he is Chinese. He seems to have an American accent but up to this point he has not said much so it is hard to tell with his hesitant yes’s.
“I did not receive it.”
“I would like to come and check out the hotel.”
“Yes, I talked to our manager and she would like to have you come and see the hotel. We would like to meet you.”
“Good, Good,” I say and add “I could come this evening.”
“We are currently booked.” He then adds “As a matter of fact we are booked for the rest of the month. The best time to come would be during the week.”
“During the week?’ I ask. “I could perhaps come next Thursday”
More silence. The man is not the most forthcoming man. On the phone, he seems nice. However, he is somewhat reserved. He does not want to volunteer any information. He probably has to be this way in his position at the hotel.
“Did you say you could come today?”
“Why don’t you come on to Ningbo this evening,” he says and then adds “Let’s just get this taken care of. I would like to get this contract signed so we do not have to worry about it.”
“Yes, that would be good,” I say.
“I will email you the stop where you get off on the train.”
“That sounds good. I will see you tonight,” I say. Perhaps, I detected a note of friendliness in his voice when he was getting off the phone.
As I hang up the phone, I breathe a sigh of relief. ‘Yes, let’s get this taken care of’ I think to myself. The other day’s conversation with Elizabeth comes ringing back into my ears. She wants to sign the new contract after this short break. I want to be able to tell her I have found another job when I talk to her. The job I have found pays me twice what I am getting now. I may or may not tell her this. I do like her. I think that she is a good boss. I do not want to leave her hanging. I hope to know by next week so that she has the summer to look for a new teacher to take my place. Yes, let’s get this taken care of. Let’s sign this contract.
I call Miko. I hope that she is still around. I hope that she has not gone back to Ningbo yet. The phone rings several times.
“Tyson, what are you doing?”
“I am going to Ningbo.”
“You are? I am going tonight at 6 o’clock. You can go with me.”
“Oh…good!” I will go at 6 pm with Miko. This is working out perfect.
The time is 10:30 am. I want to talk to someone about this development. I will take a shower and tell the Sofa Negotiator. I take a shower and shave. I put on jeans and my LaGuardia Community College T and walk over to the international building. The building is deserted. Most of the students are at home enjoying their short break before the onslaught of final exams. I ride the elevator up to the 6th floor. I step out into the corridor and start walking toward the reception office which is where the Sofa Negotiator sits. I hear a door shut behind me. The Sofa Negotiator is coming out of the restroom.
I tell her I was looking for her. I ask her what she is doing.
“I am going to lunch,” she says.
“I was looking for you to see if you wanted to go to lunch together.”
“Really?” she asks.
“Where do you want to go?” she asks.
“I don’t care. Where do you want to go I ask?”
“I don’t care. I am very hungry,” says the Sofa Negotiator.
“I am too”
The Sofa Negotiator and I walk to downtown Songjiang. I tell her I need to get cash. She asks me if I like seafood. I tell her yes. She says she knows where she will take me.
The ATM which is the most convenient is out of order. We walk up the street and cross. I have trouble. The card will not accept my card. The Sofa Negotiator is waiting outside for me. This is the one area where you are given an enormous amount of privacy here in China. I go outside and tell her I am having a hard time with the ATM. She comes back in with me. She tries to put my card in thinking I was putting it in the wrong way. She finally realizes I am standing at the machine which is specifically for this bank’s customers. I go to the machine beside it and I have no problem getting cash.
I ask her where this place is that we are eating. I am excited to have a new place to eat. She tells me she hopes she can find it. We cross the street and head into the alleyways and cul-de-sacs. The areas of Songjiang are becoming familiar. This is the area where I get the good shit, the movies for 5 yuan. (Although, I was not thrilled when I got X-men III home and put it in and the voices were not in English and not in Chinese but another familiar language. When I hit set up on the menu, Spanish is the only audio language offered. English is subtitles. I am all for subtitles. I champion subtitles. However, I do not champion dubbed movies – ever!)
This particular alleyway is one of the ones that opens into a sprawling two story outdoor mall with food stands, knick knack shops and clothing boutiques. Near the end of the row of stores, she looks into a place and says. “Yes, this is the place.”
The place reminds me of the hole in the wall Sushi place on St. Marks in New York. The seating is bench seating. Small landscape oil paintings line the walls. The kitchen is in the back visible through swinging barroom doors.
We sit down. The Negotiator tells me this is healthy food. An older man who looks as if he could be the father takes our order. Another man prepares food back in the kitchen. Three women do various other restaurant tasks. Then - I do not notice him right off - A younger Chinese man - who is probably mid-twenties and may be married to one of the women - sits brooding and smoking a cigarette. The rest of the clan seems to be enjoying themselves but this man does not seem to be having much of a good time. He has smoldering movie star sex appeal with his cool aloofness. He is the only person in the restaurant who does not keep stealing glances at the foreigner who has just sat down.
We order a seafood soup and a huge side order of sea weed that looks to me like Johnson grass that has been hanging out in the sea or someone’s sink for a few years. Surprisingly, the seaweed / Johnson grass is rather tasty. The menu lists all of the healthy properties of seaweed Jessie tells me.
We talk about my interview in Ningbo. I am very excited to go. The whole aspect of all of the trappings of this five star hotel is fantastic. I tell Jessie I am going with Miko. She then tells me that the visiting American students have latched onto Miko. I do not know how to tell her that Miko has a coolness which is not quite apparent in the other students. Miko, to me, is the most culturally accessible one of the Shanghai90210. When she laughs, she laughs like an American which sounds really strange but it is true. I am truly fond of all of them but I can see how Miko would be popular with them.
“Should I buy my train ticket before I go?” I ask.
“Yes!” She said this so emphatically that I was a bit worried I had waited to late.
“You really think I should buy the ticket before I go.”
“Has Miko bought her ticket?”
“I don’t know,” I reply.
“Maybe you should call her and ask.”
I dial Miko’s number, no answer. No one has voicemail here. An operator comes on and says something in Chinese and then English “This number is not answering. Try again later.”
The negotiator calls for our check. I tell her I will pay since she does not want a going away dinner when she leaves the company. I give the money to the older man. The brooding movie star younger man is smoking in a chair outside by the front door. I tell him goodbye as I leave. When I do this, I see him smile for the first time. I then realized he was brooding and smoldering the whole time to hide his bad teeth. Instantly, my infatuation evaporates.
As we are walking back to the school, I text message Miko and ask her if she has bought her train ticket. To freak her out, I have Jessie write the message in Chinese. Before we get back to the school, I am sure Miko will send a message back. We get back to the school, no message from Miko. The time is 1:30. I start to worry. Miko is not the most dependable person I know. I try not to worry. The train does not leave until 6 pm.
The Sofa Negotiator goes back to the office. I go to my apartment. Before we part, she asks me if I will come by the office and show her how a song goes on the guitar. I tell her I will come by and help her figure out the song she wants to learn. I do not put much hope in this endeavor. The last guitar lesson I gave her, I tried to show her an e minor chord. This did not go well.
At my apartment, I finish packing. I throw my passport and foreign expert’s certificate into my bag. From past experience, I know to always pack my passport if I am staying at a hotel. I throw a deck of cards into my bag in case Miko wants to play cards. For train reading, I throw in today’s Shanghai Daily and Moby Dick. I tell myself I am going to finish the book soon. It has become my literary albatross. I then head over to the international building.
The Sofa Negotiator shows me the song she would like to learn. It looks familiar. I ask her if it is by Jay. Everyone loves Jay. She says it is.
28if-Paul wanted to learn this same song. However, when he wanted to learn it, he played it for me first on the guitar. All I had to do was tell him he was playing it right. I tell the Sofa Negotiator that Paul could show her the song. She tells me that I am more of a professional. I stumble through the song which starts with a slow picked guitar reminiscent of the 80s hit ‘Fast Car.’
I try to explain to the Sofa Negotiator the concept of an open string. I tell her, her fingers cannot touch the string or it will deaden it. She tells me she is not touching the string. I hate to inform her, she is. This goes on for at least 10 minutes. I tell her an open string should not be muted. I do not know how to explain. I keep trying to show her, she does not understand.
I have still not heard from Miko. I start to think she thought having me come on the train would be a pain in the ass, she ditched me. I know she has ditched me. Who would want some stinky old foreigner on a train with them? I am starting to get worried. I try to call her again after the Sofa Negotiator tells me I should call Miko again. I know how teens are. Do it now. Explain it later. That is a teen’s attitude. If she left already, that would be fine. I just want to know. I will make other arrangements. I am an adult.
I head for my apartment to think about my predicament that might not actually be a predicament. I call Jennifer. She is in Suzhou. She left yesterday. One of her friends answers and tells me Jennifer is not currently with her phone. Jennifer will call me back later. I tell her okay.
I am starting to panic. Where is Miko? Should I make other arrangements to get to Ningbo? Would I be able to negotiate everything that a 4 hour train trip entails with no knowledge of this strange language I am surrounded by? Can I depend on a somewhat flaky high school student? Was that question redundant?