At the gatehouse, a package has arrived for me. On my way home from the school, I stop by the gatehouse and grab the fed-ex box that Meg sent. She tells me Omar helped her gather the goodies in said box. Kevin is leaving school at the same time as me. He and I walk down the sidewalk. The Fed-Ex box is the size of a tall, flat baby. Eric is walking to the school bus - a Volkswagen mini-van. Both of the boys ask me what is in the box. I don’t know I tell them, maybe coffee.
Eric leaves us and goes to the school bus. Kevin and I walk on down the block. He is walking to the bus stop. He takes a city bus home. I disappear into the labyrinth of my apartment complex.
At the end of the day, I am always exhausted, always. Back in my apartment, with the last of the day’s energy, I open the fed-ex box. All of the prizes spill out. These gifts from across the sea are unimaginably wonderful. They are like little metaphysical lifeboats…yours is the only version of my desertion that I could ever subscribe to that is all that I can do…
Yes, inside the box is coffee, expensive coffee. Never, do I buy expensive coffee for myself. Expensive coffee is a luxury. This makes me immensely happy. Ground coffee makes me very happy.
This is just the beginning of the spilling of the booty. From there, I pull out a package of M&M Halloween candy, a miniature box of Russell Stover’s chocolates (my favorite chocolates), a new Moleskin journal, 3 sticks of Sure underarm deodorant, a big bag of beef jerky and a set of oil paints. The last item I pull out is a card/photo book which Meg cut and pasted together. This chokes me up. Friends are friends, across the ocean and over time. Friends are friends.
Hungry – and too tired to go to the store – I open the beef jerky, slice some cheese, pour a coke, and tear open some French bread. This is my supper. Unfortunately for my digestive system, I eat the entire large bag of beef jerky in about five minutes. For dessert, I eat all of the Russell Stover’s chocolates. I feel so USMC. Pyle (Gomer) never had it better.
In the evening, while my neighbors play cards and eat sunflower seeds sitting in an assortment of ramshackle stools in the apartment lane, I walk to the apartment entrance to the pure water service station. With me, I carry two one-gallon jugs. For one yuan (approximately 12 cents), I can fill one up and fill the other one to the half way mark. When I first moved into this apartment complex, I just bought a jug of water every day or so at the Quik or at Jiadeli. That was before I discovered the small pure water service station next to the front gate of the apartment complex. Always here in China, there is so much to take in that it is hard to spot the little things like water stations.
On my way back, I pass a young father with a baby in his arms. I say ‘Ni hao’ as I pass. He says something in passing. I laugh. Of course, I have no idea what he said. He follows me to my back gate. He is talking to me trying to make conversation. Over and over, in Chinese, I tell him I do not understand. This does not discourage him. I am not scared. I am just a little perturbed. I am carrying two jugs of water. I would like to be left alone. He keeps talking. I am fiddling with my keys which I drop while I am trying to unlock my gate. He is still talking.
Everyone here is always nice; I am not threatened. He’s carrying a baby. When a would-be assailant is carrying a baby, fear is not exactly an emotion that hits you. Perturbation is what I feel. The students wear me out during the day. At night, I really like – and I really need – my solitude.
Finally, I open my door and he somewhat looks inside to see my now cluttered patio. The living room furniture that is stored here is not making me so happy. Maybe, I could talk my landlord into putting it into storage. The other day, I saw this really nice patio in a photo - a getaway in Chengdu. Chengdu is supposedly really nice but I thought ‘Oh, I could do that to my patio.’ In the photo, a table was dimly lit with little shrubs growing all around it.
This man carrying a baby seems to want an impromptu tour of my apartment. At the moment, I am not in the mood. I kindly say ‘Wo ting bu dong’ once more and shut the door as he is trying to edge his body through the door.
Surprise, sometimes, will come around.
As I walk to the kitchen, I laugh to myself. Sometimes, the forwardness, the curiosity, the invasion of personal space surprises me and makes me laugh. Yes, I am laughing out of exhaustion, irritation, and the general absurdity.
Once I am in the kitchen, I switch on the light. Outside the window, I hear a voice. I go to the window. Suddenly, my kitchen is like the Laugh-In outro. The man with the baby that I just left at my back gate is standing at my window talking to me. Naturally, he is still talking in Chinese. And, naturally, I still cannot understand him. This reminds me of the Bugs Bunny cartoon when he could not get rid of the penguin. (Or was it a kangaroo?)
By this time, I am laughing as I am telling him I do not understand him. This does not deter him; he keeps gabbing. The baby is smiling. Maybe he is not even talking to me. Maybe my kitchen is a zoo cage and I am the exhibit. My words, my laugh mean the same as the quack of a duck, the scream of a peacock, the roar of a lion, the whinny of a horse.
Yes, as an exhibit, I must entertain him but as a standing aninimal I must go on with my business. With the water that I just got at the pure water station, I fill my ice trays. Occasionally, I look over at the window to see if I am still an exhibit, if I have attracted a bigger crowd, if this crowd is taking snapshots, shooting video. Am I still on Planet Earth? Fortunately, the man and baby have grown tired of watching me putter in my natural habitat. They have went on with their lives. Maybe they are now sitting eating sunflower seeds with neighbors. Maybe the man is talking to the baby about college, the facts of life, Mary Tyler Moore.
But it’s different now that I’m poor and I’m aging...
Sometimes, I drift in and out of here. Andrea and I talked about this. Sometimes, I forget I am in China. When I am walking, I sometimes feel as if I could be in Queens, Brixton, Vancouver, Mustang. Once I am in the classroom, I know undoubtedly that I am in China.
Outside my window, I hear voices. Sometimes, the voices do not sound foreign. I hear a car door followed by a woman’s voice. Distinctly, I seem to hear her say “yeah, but…” However when I listen more closely, the meaning is strangely garbled, lost in the air. The tongue becomes Chinese. Nothing do I understand. My life will soon arrive.