I stand on the eighteenth floor balcony of the only cyllindrical building in Changan, looking out through the anti-burglary wires that look like skinny prison bars keeping me in here. But no one’s forcing me to be here. I put myself here. It feels sad in a poetic kind of way, but that’s all.
It’s 9 pm and Changan is still alive and kicking, like it is every night. Blue, yellow, orange, and red lights illuminate high rise apartments, store fronts, and community gathering places like the town square. Sometimes someone in their apartment walks past their TV and I see their silhouette and realize that when they’re inside, they probably don’t see how they’re one piece of the huge and brilliant moving mosaic that is this place’s cityscape. I wonder how they feel. Are they preoccupied with something like the news or their kids or their work? Do they feel alone?
It’s hard not to be if your window or balcony’s open and you can hear the city. This city always sounds fun. The loud pop music playing far away, the sound of honking as people head to karaoke bars or to see their friends, the high pitched laughs of little kids that pierce through the air and reach the ears of anyone who’s listening.
I see what I’m part of and I want to throw away everything at home. I want to throw away all the commitments, the passions, the lingering questions, so that I can be completely and totally present here. But I can’t. My life’s not here, it’s there, and I’m leaving soon even though I haven’t seen much of this place at all. I should, because this is one of the last times I’ll be here but my heart’s not totally here and that matters.
Today Chengqing took me to Changan Park, in the middle of which stands the ancient-looking, tall Chinese building I notice whenever I go swimming. She meant to take me hiking up a mountain, but she accidentally threw her athletic shoes in the wash last night and she thought the sunshine kind of hurt this morning. Instead we walked through what felt like an Asian Central Park. At 7:30 am there were hundreds of people from age fifteen to eighty walking, jogging, enjoying the morning air, or doing taichi. She walked two steps behind me, blocking the sun with her palms as we talked.
I couldn’t tell if she thought it was a date or not. I secretly wish she didn’t but I can never tell with these things. I’m horrible at it. But we talked, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes not, about all sorts of things. We kept referring back to things we said to each other before, as if to test if the other person remembered. I almost stepped on two unreasonably big snails and she got scared both times. When we finally passed the pond, the rickety roller coasters, and the colorful jungle gym-like exercise equipment and got to the tall building (the ta), we found out it was closed. Earlier, she said that being at the top of the ta in the morning felt especially good, but maybe she just guessed what it felt like to be there in the morning. We left shortly thereafter.
I thought we were headed back, but I guess she texted her coworkers and took two hours off so she could hang out for longer. We went to a coffee shop. I think it was called UTC Coffee or something, and it’s from Taiwan.
It was eery inside. Elaborate chandeliers decorated the ceilings, probably-plastic jewels hung and sparkled in the sunlight that came in through the big window wall. The waiters were dressed in constricting-looking fancy clothes, sweating because their boss probably wanted to save money on the air conditioning. They turned one air conditioner on at our table. We were the only ones there that morning.
Chengqing had said before that she didn’t like bars, beer, or bumming around with friends at night. She was a coffee shop, music, book, and morning kind of person. Sometimes she went with friends, sometimes she brought her laptop, but usually she went to coffee shops with nothing but a book and spent entire afternoons curled up in the oversized couches reading and sometimes falling asleep. I told her that sounded wonderful, which is probably why she brought me.
She told me early on she was treating me, because it was my first time in China. I could treat her if she ever went to America. There was something about the whole situation that felt funny. I pay her to be my masseuse at the massage place, she gives me discounts on their different massage offerings. I pay her, and she uses the money she earns to treat me out to breakfast. If it weren’t for capitalism, maybe I’d be treating her out to a meal and she’d be massaging me just as a friend.
We ordered, we ate, and then we just sat there comfortably for awhile without talking. She wrote. I read on my phone. A few times, I noticed the way she sat on the couch, writing in her journal, and thought about who she was as a person.
She told me about her old boyfriend, who I kind of reminded her of. She asked about America, as if considering whether she might one day move there. She told me how she wanted to visit London and Paris one day. She told these things and scribbled in her notebook and I wondered whether or not she really enjoyed her life. She seemed like she did, but she’s a dreamer and I wondered if she wanted more than what she had.
It made me wonder why she was being so incredibly nice to me. Was she really into me? Was it exciting to her that I came from a different place? Did she see in me some way for her to escape her current condition?
I told her about my school and about sailing and about how recently the US Supreme Court made millions of Americans happier with its recent rulings on same-sex marriage. This shocked her. Guys marry guys and girls marry girls there? But that’s not how it works. I told her it is how it works, sometimes. People fall in love. Something about that made her think in a really introspective way—as if she’d been lied to.
Before we left, she asked me whether I was really leaving China next week. Probably, I said.
She replied: don’t decide yet. See more of China first. And when you do decide, I have to be the first person you tell, okay? I am your first friend, right?
When I said yes, it felt like I could breathe a sigh of relief, because she finally gave me an out. We could just be friends.