Saturday, May 8, 2010

A Slow Boat to China

You’re on the yacht, coming back from Lamma Island after dinner with your project sponsor and the rest of the group.  The sea is calmer than the trip over, the air balmy for April.  You’ve had a lot of red wine—between servings of prawn and welk, the waiters just kept pouring—but not too much. 

Behind you are the lights of Lamma:  a row of restaurants on stilts, an assortment of wooden fishing boats, UFO-shaped yachts and mussel farms; above them all, dark mountains barely visible against the night sky. 

In front of you glows Ag Lei Chau, the small island just off the south end of Hong Kong Island.  The apartment complexes there are 42 stories high, and they glow like Christmas trees would, if Christmas trees were black and orange and rectangular and 42-stories high. 

There were maybe 20 people in the party.  Only four of you have climbed up to the upper deck, though, with the warm night air, and the lights glowing off the dark water in front of you and the dark water behind you.  Joe stands, his hair tucked into his collar so it doesn’t snap in the wind.  Younger David sits beside you, the arm of the sports coat that you like so much brushing your sleeve as he talks.  Older David, a native Hong Konger who’s sister lives in one of those buildings you’re cruising toward, sits on the other side, listening, occasionally tilting his head away from the hum of the motor. 

These are three of your favorite people:  Joe is one of the gentlest men you know.  Younger David surprises you with his jokes, delivered with just the smallest upward turn of his mouth.  Older David has taken it upon himself to introduce you and the rest of the group to the best noodles, the best hotpot, and the best tailor in Hong Kong.  Without any of these three men, this trip would not have been everything it is. 

So you’re sitting there, and the wind blowing, and the boat bobbing, and those lights glowing in front of you so beautifully that you start to tell a story.  It’s about your junior year when you lived in Durham and about how on the last night you were there you went out dancing with friends.  And it got late and you got sweaty and for some reason you ended up walking home with this girl named Lisa who you know and who you liked well enough, but who wasn’t one of your best friends or anything. 

Immediately someone on the boat wants know if this story ends with sex, and you have to disappoint them by saying it doesn’t, though there was this one time when Lisa showed up for breakfast at St. Aidan’s College where you both lived, took one look at you, and fled, her face bright red.  Turns out she had a sex dream about you.  You know this, because two days later she came up and told you the so, concluding with, “What’s weird is that I don’t find you the least bit attractive.”

So no, you tell the two Daves and Joe, this story most certainly doesn’t end with sex.

What it does end with is you crying.  This is your last night in England, after all, and you’ve been there for a year, and it’s been without question or exaggeration the best year of your life, because in Durham you’re on your own and exploring a new country and you’re special and different and every day is surprising and scintillating and you learn more about who you are and what you’re capable of than you ever thought you could. 

So you’re walking home with this Lisa, this unattracted-to-you Lisa, and you’re strolling up the cobblestone streets that rise along the river and across from the Cathedral, and suddenly the Cathedral bells begin to toll. 

Durham Cathedral, for anyone who hasn’t seen it, is one of the most magnificent buildings in the world.  Built starting in 1093, it looms above the River Wear on a broad peninsula, its central tower thrusting up from a squat body at once grounded and elegant.  At night when it’s lit by spot-lights, its gothic detail take on the quality of lace. 

It is gorgeous.  And with its chimes striking every quarter hour, it is a constant reminder throughout the year that you are somewhere far far away from the cornfields of Wisconsin.

And that night, walking with Lisa, when the chimes begin, you burst into tears. 

Poor Lisa.  Here she is with a guy she wasn’t that attracted to, a guy she doesn’t even know that well, this lanky American with long blonde hair and a pointy nose—and he’s weeping like an eleven-old who’s just lost his puppy. 

“So what was that all about?” Joe asks.

“Lisa,” intones the older David.  “He wanted to get lucky, but she wasn’t interested.”

 You don’t know, you say to Joe.  But then you do, and you explain it as best you can:  you’ve realized, at that moment, walking up that hill, that you would never be in this beautiful, amazing place again.  Oh sure, you could—and would—come back to Durham in the future:  you could wander the cobblestoned streets, you could slam pints in the smoky pubs, you could pause on Prebends Bridge, looking down at the slow moving water, the weir, the mill house, that insanely gorgeous cathedral.  You could be there—but you wouldn’t be of there.  Touring around for two days while you crash at a B&B isn’t the same as living in a college with 300 other kids your own age and wandering past medieval buildings and ancient sandstone walls so often that you don’t even notice them—except for every once in a while when you stop and look around and suddenly think, “Holy crap.  I live here.” 

Older David shakes his head.  “You’ll be back.”

“Yeah,” says Joe.  “There’ll be lots of opportunities.”

The lights of Ag Lei Chau are closer now, on the left.  The yacht’s captain is steering toward the entrance of the Aberdeen harbor, slowing the engine to a slow grumble. 

“I know,” you say, even though you don’t.  You have three kids after all, and a wife with a busy job, and Hong Kong is twenty hours away by plane, and expensive as hell.  It’s entirely possible, you think, that you’ll never see any of this again. 

“You’re not going to cry again, are you?” says younger Dave.  “Because if you start, I’ll probably join you.”

Everyone laughs, and the conversation shifts to one of the writing projects you’ve all been working on together, a collection of essays about reflective moments during your time here.  You ask older Dave if he’s got a topic yet, then mention a conversation way back in October, when he complained about the administrative bullshit that riddles HK universities.

“I never said that,” he says.  Light from the harbor is flashing off his glasses. 

“Yes you did.”

“I never use words like ‘bullshit.’”

Which is true.  You know this the moment he says it because you suddenly remember all the times you dropped a casual cuss word in his company and he just looked at you like you were an idiot. 

You like him, and want him to like you, so you try to redeem yourself.   “You do know why I swear so much, don’t you?”

Again, that flash of the glasses.  You wish you could see his eyes, but the funny thing is, you know it wouldn’t help.  Both Davids are masters of the straight face. 


“Because I’m a pastor’s kid,” you say.  “And I was too scared to drink or smoke or get laid.  So I took to swearing.”

“I’m a pastor’s kid,” he says.  “Are you saying I did all of those things?”

You weren’t, of course, because you didn’t even know his dad was a minister.  But this is David, and half the time you just have to go with it.  So you look straight at him and say, “Yes.”

He laughs.  The boat is in the harbor, now.  Rows of flats crawl up the steep hills tower on both sides of the water:  through open curtains you can see flashing televisions, hanging laundry, an old man in a tank T smoking a cigarette.  David starts to tell a story about the first time he got drunk.  He was with his father, and it was the ordination of a new church, and the waiters came around offering drinks to everyone.  Randomly, David chose gin. 

“Did you get sick?” you ask.


“Did you act like an idiot?” 

“Not really.  I still knew what was going on.”

Huh.  You nod.  It’s not really the way you wanted the day to end, this peculiar conversation where you look sort of foolish and where all the jokes are someone else’s.  The wine is wearing off now, and the spotlights and glowing blue-white halogens are scraping the romance off the evening, though the memory of that night in Durham more than 20 years ago still hovers at the back of your skull.  It’s stupid, you know, to be feeling so melancholy so soon.  You still have two months in Hong Kong, not to mention two weeks’ worth of travel through Malaysia and Cambodia.  Life is good.  This is a good gig. 

But you also know how fast time goes.  Most of you are doing a workshop a week now, sometimes two, and between that and the day-to-day business of designing and implementing new programs and stuffing your face with dim sum and taking pictures and writing blogs, weeks go like days and days like hours.  It’ll be over soon.  Soon, you’ll be someone who used to live in Hong Kong.

The yacht turns.  On your left is Jumbo, a giant floating restaurant glowing with twelve thousand Christmas lights.  The food there is mediocre, but tourists flock to it anyway, despite the fact that it’s just like any other restaurant, only on water.  What would happen, you wonder, if a dentist set up shop on a boat, then made a big deal about it, publicizing it in the papers and on TV.  Would people fight to get in, just because it’s on water?  What if the dentist were bad at his job? 

The ship docks with a bump.  Joe and the two Davids have gone down the stairs now, leaving you alone on the upper deck.  You put your hands on the wooden rails, preparing to descend.  Then you pause.  You look around.  Glowing lights.  Too much light.  You try to remember what it was like on the water, the boat smooth through the waves, the breeze warm and moist.  You wonder if someday, when you’re 90 maybe and sitting in a retirement home watching cardinals outside in the snow, your blue-veined hands on the blanket over your knees—if at that moment, you’ll suddenly remember this night, the wind, the lights, the feeling of being somewhere special and being someone special and doing something that only a few people ever get to do in their lives. 

You don’t know.  The boat is secure now, the guests are on the dock, chattering.  Someone laughs and someone else says, “Excuse me.”  You know they’re probably waiting for you.  You don’t care.  You just want to stand up here, on this deck, on this boat, in this harbor, on this island, with this wind on your face and the smell of the salt in your nose and the air in your lungs—you just want to stand here a little bit longer. 

1 comment:

Eric K. said...

"Soon, you’ll be someone who used to live in Hong Kong."

So simple, but this may be the best line you've written all year, which is saying something, since you've written a lot of good things.

But this one, really nails it. Almost Fitzgeraldesque, full of melancholy, a little regret, and just a dash of cynicism.