Saving Fish From Drowning
Saving Fish From Drowning
AMY TAN Saving Fish from Drowning
It was not my fault. If only the group had followed my original itinerary without changing it hither, thither, and yon, this debacle would never have happened. But such was not the case, and there you have it, I regret to say.
“Following Buddha’s Footsteps” is what I named the expedition. It was to have begun in the southwestern corner of China, in Yunnan Province, with vistas of the Himalayas and perpetual spring flowers, and then to have continued south on the famed Burma Road. This would allow us to trace the marvelous influence of various religious cultures on Buddhist art over a thousand years and a thousand miles—a fabulous journey into the past. As if that were not enough appeal, I would be both tour leader and personal docent, making the expedition a truly value-added opportunity. But in the wee hours of December 2nd, and just fourteen days before we were to leave on our expedition, a hideous thing happened … I died. There. I’ve finally said it, as unbelievable as it sounds. I can still see the tragic headline: “Socialite Butchered in Cult Slaying.”
The article was quite long: two columns on the left-hand side of the front page, with a color photo of me covered with an antique textile, an exquisite one utterly ruined for future sale.
The report was a terrible thing to read: “The body of Bibi Chen, 63, retail maven, socialite, and board member of the Asian Art Museum, was found yesterday in the display window of her Union Square store, The Immortals, famed for its chinoiserie …” That odious word—“chinoiserie”—so belittling in a precious way. The article continued with a rather nebulous description of the weapon: a small, rakelike object that had severed my throat, and a rope tightened around my neck, suggesting that someone had tried to strangle me after stabbing had failed. The door had been forced open, and bloody footprints of size-twelve men’s shoes led from the platform where I had died, then out the door, and down the street. Next to my body lay jewelry and broken figurines. According to one source, there was a paper with writing from a Satanic cult bragging that it had struck again.
Two days later, there was another story, only shorter and with no photo: “New Clues in Arts Patron’s Death.” A police spokesman explained that they had never called it a cult slaying. The detective had noted “a paper,” meaning a newspaper tabloid, and when asked by reporters what the paper said, he gave the tabloid’s headline: “Satanic Cult Vows to Kill Again.” The spokesman went on to say that more evidence had been found and an arrest had been made. A police dog tracked the trail left by my blood. What is invisible to the human eye, the spokesman said, still contains “scent molecules that highly trained dogs can detect for as long a week or so after the event.” (My death was an event?) The trail took them to an alleyway, where they found bloodstained slacks stuffed in a shopping cart filled with trash. A short distance from there, they found a tent fashioned out of blue tarp and cardboard. They arrested the occupant, a homeless man, who was wearing the shoes that had left the telltale imprints. The suspect had no criminal record but a history of psychiatric problems. Case solved.
Or maybe not. Right after my friends were lost in Burma, the newspaper changed its mind again: “Shopkeeper’s Death Ruled Freak Accident.”
No reason, no purpose, no one to blame, just “freak,” this ugly word next to my name forever. And why was I demoted to “shopkeeper”? The story further noted that DNA analysis of the man’s skin particles and those on both the blood-spattered trousers and the shoes confirmed that the man was no longer a suspect. So who had entered my gallery and left the prints? Wasn’t it an obvious case of crime? Who, exactly, caused this freak accident? Yet there was no mention of a further investigation, shame on them. In the same article, the reporter noted “an odd coincidence,” namely that “Bibi Chen had organized the Burma Road trip, in which eleven people went on a journey to view Buddhist art and disappeared.” You see how they pointed the shaking finger of blame? They certainly implied it, through slippery association with what could not be adequately explained, as if I had created a trip that was doomed from the start. Pure nonsense.
The worst part about all of this is that I don’t remember how I died. In those last moments, what was I doing? Whom did I see wielding the instrument of death? Was it painful? Perhaps it was so awful that I blocked it from my memory. It’s human nature to do that. And am I not still human, even if I’m dead?
The autopsy concluded that I was not strangled but had drowned in my own blood. It was ghastly to hear. So far none of this information has been of any use whatsoever. A little rake in my throat, a rope around my neck—this was an accident? You’d have to be brainless to think so, as more than a few evidently were.
At the postmortem, photos were taken, especially of the awful part of my neck. My body was tucked into a metal drawer for future study. There I lay for several days, and then samples of me were removed—a swab of this, a sliver of that, hair follicles, blood, and gastric juices. Then two more days went by, because the chief medical examiner went on vacation in Maui, and since I was an illustrious person, of particular renown in the art world—and no, not just the retail community, as the San Francisco Chronicle suggested—he wanted to see me personally, as did esteemed people in the professions of crime and forensic medicine. They dropped by on their lunch hour to make ghoulish guesses as to what had happened to cause my premature demise. For days, they slid me in, they slid me out, and said brutish things about the contents of my stomach, the integrity of the vessels in my brain, my personal habits, and past records of my health, some being rather indelicate matters one would rather not hear discussed so openly among strangers eating their sack lunches.
In that refrigerated land, I thought I had fallen into the underworld, truly I did. The most dejected people were there—an angry woman who had dashed across Van Ness Avenue to scare her boyfriend, a young man who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and changed his mind halfway down, an alcoholic war vet who had passed out on a nude beach. Tragedies, mortal embarrassments, unhappy endings, all of them. But why was I there?
I was stuck in these thoughts, unable to leave my breathless body, until I realized that my breath was not gone but surrounding me, buoying me upward. It was quite amazing, really—every single breath, the sustenance I took and expelled out of both habit and effort over sixty-three years had accumulated like a savings account. And everyone else’s as well, it seemed, inhalations of hopes, exhalations of disappointment. Anger, love, pleasure, hate—they were all there, the bursts, puffs, sighs, and screams. The air I had breathed, I now knew, was composed not of gases but of the density and perfume of emotions. The body had been merely a filter, a censor. I knew this at once, without question, and I found myself released, free to feel and do whatever I pleased. That was the advantage of being dead: no fear of future consequences. Or so I thought.
WHEN THE FUNERAL finally happened on December 11th, it was nearly ten days after I died, and without preservation I would have been compost. Nonetheless, many came to see and mourn me. A modest guess would be, oh, eight hundred, though I am not strictly counting. To begin, there was my Yorkshire terrier, Poochini, in the front row, prostrate, head over paws, sighing through the numerous eulogies. Beside him was my good friend Harry Bailley, giving him the occasional piece of desiccated liver. Harry had offered to adopt Poochini, and my executor readily agreed, since Harry is, as everyone knows, that famous British dog trainer on television. Perhaps you’ve seen his show—The Fido Files? Number-one ratings, and many, many Emmy Awards. Lucky little Poochini.
And the mayor came—did I mention?—and stayed at least ten minutes, which may not sound long, but he goes to many places in a day and spends far less time at most. The board members and staff of the Asian Art Museum also came to pay respects, nearly all of them, as did the docents I trained, years’ and years’ worth, plus the people who had signed up for the Burma Road trip. There were also my three tenants—the troublesome one, as well—and my darling repeat customers and the daily browsers, plus Roger, my FedEx man; Thieu, my Vietnamese manicurist; Luc, my gay haircolorist; Bobo, my gay Brazilian housekeeper; and most surprising to say, Najib, the Lebanese grocer from my corner market on Russian Hill, who called me “dearie” for twenty-seven years but never gave me a discount, not even when the fruit had gone overripe. By the way, I am not mentioning people in any order of importance. This is simply how it is coming to me.
Now that I think of it, I would estimate that more than eight hundred people were there. The auditorium at the de Young Museum was crowded beyond belief, and hundreds spilled into the halls, where closed-circuit television monitors beamed the unhappy proceedings. It was a Monday morning, when the museum was usually closed, but a number of out-of-towners on Tea Garden Drive saw the funeral as a fine opportunity to sneak into the current exhibit, Silk Road Treasures from the Aurel Stein Expeditions, a testimony, in my opinion, to British Imperial plundering at the height of cupidity. When guards turned the interlopers away from the exhibits, they wandered over to my funeral fête, morbidly lured by copies of various obituaries that lay next to the guest book. Most of the papers gave the same hodgepodge of facts: “Born in Shanghai … Fled China with her family as a young girl in 1949 … An alumna of Mills College and guest lecturer there, in art history … Proprietor of The Immortals … Board member of many organizations …” Then came a long list of worthy causes for which I was described as a devoted and generous donor: this league and that society, for Asian seniors and Chinese orphans, for the poor, the ill, and the disabled, for the abused, the illiterate, the hungry, and the mentally ill. There was an account of my delight in the arts and the substantial amounts I had given to fund artist colonies, the Youth Orchestra with the San Francisco Symphony, and the Asian Art Museum, the location of my funeral, the major recipient of my lagniappes and largesse, before and after death which enthusiastically offered the unusual venue for my funeral, the de Young, in which the Asian museum was housed.
Reading the roster of my achievements, I should have been bursting with pride. Instead, it struck me as nonsensical. I heard a roar of voices coming from every bit of chatter from every dinner, luncheon, and gala I had ever attended. I saw a blur of names in thick, glossy programs, my own displayed in “Archangels,” below those in the fewer-numbered and more favored “Inner Sanctum,” to which that Yang boy, the Stanford dropout, always seemed to belong. Nothing filled me with the satisfaction I believed I would have at the end of my life. I could not say to myself: “That is where I was most special, where I was most important, and that is enough for a lifetime.” I felt like a rich vagabond who had passed through the world, paving my way with gold fairy dust, then realizing too late that the path disintegrated as soon as I passed over it.
As to whom I had left behind, the obituary said, “There are no survivors,” which is what is said of airplane crashes. And it was sadly true, all my family was gone—my father, of a heart attack; one brother, of alcoholic cirrhosis, although I was not supposed to mention that; the other brother a victim of a road-rage accident; and my mother, who passed from life before I could know her. I don’t count my stepmother, Sweet Ma, who is still alive, but the less said about her the better.
The choice of an open-casket ceremony was my fault, the result of an unfortunate aside I had made to a group of friends at a tea-tasting party I had hosted at my gallery the previous July. You see, earlier that week I had received a ship’s container of fantastic items I found in the countryside of Hubei Province. Among them was a two-hundred-year-old lacquered coffin of paulownia wood made by a eunuch singer who had performed in palace theatricals. In death, most eunuchs, except those in the upper echelons of service, were given only the most perfunctory of burials, without ceremony, since their mutilated bodies were not fit to appear before spirit tablets in the temples. In yesteryears, people rich and poor prepared for the netherworld by making their coffins long before they ceased to hear the cock crowing the new day, and the fact that this eunuch was allowed to make such a grand coffin suggested that he was someone’s pet—the prettier boys often were. Alas, this adored eunuch drowned while fishing along the Yangtze, and his body went sailing without a boat, swept away to oblivion. The eunuch’s parents, in Longgang Township, to whom his possessions had been sent, faithfully kept the coffin in a shed, in hopes that their son’s wayward corpse would one day return. The subsequent generations of this family grew impoverished by a combination of drought, extortion, and too many gifts to opera singers, all of which led to their losing face and their property. Years went by, and the new landowners would not go near the shed with the coffin, which was reputed to be haunted by a vampire eunuch. Derelict with neglect, the shed was covered with the dirt of winds, the mud of floods, and the dust of time.
In 1997, when a newly rich farmer started construction of a miniature golf course to adjoin his family’s two-story Swiss-style villa, the shed was unearthed. Amazingly, the coffin had only superficial rot and not much cracking from shrinkage; such is the quality of paulownia, which, though lightweight, is more durable than many harder woods. The exterior had more than fifty coats of black lacquer, as did its short four-legged stand. Beneath the grime, one could see that the lacquer bore whimsically painted carvings of sprites and gods and mythical beasts, as well as other magical motifs, and these were continued on the interior lid of the coffin as well. My favorite detail was a playful Tibetan spaniel on the portion of the lid that would have been opposite the corpse’s face. Having been protected from sunlight, the interior art on the lid was still exquisitely colored against the black lacquer. Neat bundles of paper lined the bottom, and I later determined them to be a short history of the intended tenant of the coffin and the same man’s unpublished poems, tributes to nature, beauty, and—most intriguing—romantic love for a lady from her youth through premature death. Well, I presume it was a lady, though one never knows with some Chinese names, does one? The coffin contained two other objects: a smaller lacquer urn with the name of the eunuch’s dog, the Tibetan spaniel, and a small ivory-rimmed box in which three calcified peas rattled about, said to be the eunuch’s manhood and its two accompaniments.
I could immediately see the coffin was both a millstone and a treasure. I had a few clients—people in the film industry—who might have liked this sort of odd decorative piece, particularly if it still held the petrified peas. But the proportions were awkward. The top extended beyond the length of the coffin like the duck-billed prow of a ship. And it was monstrously heavy.
I asked the farmer to name his price, and he spit out a number that was a tenth of what I was mentally willing to pay. “Ridiculous,” I said, and started to leave. “Hey, hey, hey!” he shouted, and I turned back and uttered a sum that was one-third his initial offer. He doubled that, and I retorted that if he was so enamored of a dead man’s house, he should keep it. I then halved his last price, saying I wanted the infernal box only to store some surplus items I had bought, after which I would chop up the coffin for firewood. “It has lots of room for storage,” the farmer boasted, and upped the ante a wee bit. I heaved the biggest sigh I could muster, then countered that he should make arrangements for his men to deliver it to Wuhan harbor for shipment with the rest of my brilliant bargains. Done! Voilà tout!
Back in San Francisco, once the coffin arrived, I put it in the back room of my shop and did indeed use it to store antique textiles woven by Hmong, Karen, and Lawa hill tribes. Later in the week, I had guests over for a tea-tasting class. We were sampling different pu-erh tuo cha—which is, by the way, the only tea that improves over time; anything else, after six months, you may as well use for kitty-cat litter. With the fifth tasting round, we had come to the gold standard of aged teas, a twenty-year-old vintage of the aptly named “camel breath” variety, which is especially pungent but excellent for lowering cholesterol and extending the life span. “But should I die sooner than later,” I jokingly said, “then this”—and I patted the enormous funerary box—“this magnificent vessel to the afterworld, the Cadillac of coffins, is what I wish to be buried in, and with the top raised at my funeral so that all can admire the interior artistry as well.…”
After I died, more than a few from that tea-tasting soiree recalled my quirky remark. What I said as a witticism was described as “prescient,” tantamount to a “last wish that must be honored,” et cetera, ad nauseam. And so I was made to lie in that shipwrecked coffin, not, fortunately, with the shriveled parts of the eunuch. The ivory-rimmed box with the ghoulish relics disappeared, as did the container with the bones of the eunuch’s beloved Tibetan spaniel—although why anyone would want to steal those sad contents as souvenirs is beyond my imagination.
The museum staff in charge of conservation and restoration did a minor bit of spit and polish, though no repair of chips or cracks. Such is their attitude about maintaining authenticity. A Chinese preservationist would have made it look as good as new, and painted it a nice, bright lacquer red and shiny gold. Because the coffin was rather deep, the bottom was filled with styrofoam in the shape of edamame pods, and over that went a layer of velvet—beige polyester, it was most dreadful. That was how I came to be exhibited in the museum auditorium, lying in a large black-lacquered coffin carved with celestial animals and the name of its intended tenant, who no doubt would seek me out with an eviction notice shaking in his hand.
Had I seriously been making arrangements for a premature death, I would have asked to be cremated like the Buddhist high monks, poof, gone, without attachment to the body. As for a suitable receptacle for my remains, no single urn would have sufficed. I would have chosen nine boxes of different and delicate proportions, all from The Immortals, say, a meander-patterned box from the Southern Song dynasty, a round tao yuanming for collecting chrysanthemum flowers, and—my absolute favorite, which I had overpriced on purpose—a simple Ming brush box made of black-lacquered leather. I used to open it, inhale, and feel the poetry streaming over my face.
The nine well-chosen boxes would have been arranged on a table during the reading of my will, three rows across, three down, like the three tosses of I Ching coins—both random and meaningful. Nine friends, equally chosen with thought from the best of society, would each have been asked to select a box with a portion of my ashes. Per my request, they were each to take me along on a trip to a lovely place—no sedentary fireplace mantels or Steinway piano tops for me—where they might scatter my ashes but keep the box as a memento. The boxes, being museum quality, would have increased in worth over the years, and made people remember me “with growing appreciation.” Ah-ha, they would laugh upon reading that part. Thus, my ashes would have taken a more lighthearted and peripatetic course, and I could have avoided that abhorrent spectacle of an open coffin. But there we all were, me included, waiting our turn to view the macabre.
One by one, these friends, acquaintances, and strangers from the different times of my shortened life stood by the casket to say farewell, adieu, zai jen. Many people, I could tell, were curious to see what the morticians had done to cover up the mortal wound. “Oh my God!” I heard them whisper noisily to one another. To be honest, I, too, was shocked to see how outlandishly they had prepared me for my debut with death. A shiny silver scarf was wrapped into a puffy bow around my lacerated neck. I looked like a turkey with aluminum foil, about to be put in the oven. Even worse, Bennie Trueba y Cela, the docent who grieved for me the most—that is to say, with the greatest display of wracking sobs—had given the mortuary a photo taken during an expedition that a group of us had made to Bhutan three years before. In that picture I looked strong and happy, but my hair was awful—no hot water to wash it for three days. It hung in long greasy strands, the crown was plastered down, and there was a big groove around my forehead where a sun hat had been glued to my scalp with heat and sweat. Himalayas, ha—who knew it would be so hot there, trekking during the daytime? Who knew that Bennie would later give this same photo to a mortuary girl to show her what I looked like “in the best of times.” And that silly girl would give me this same mashed-down Himalayan hairdo. She also colored my skin as dark as a Brokpa maiden’s, so that now people would remember my face all wrong, like a mango past its prime.
Not that I expected everyone to say, “Oh, I remember Bibi, she was beautiful.” I was not. I had a keen eye for beautiful things since girlhood, and I knew my faults. My body was as small and short-legged as a wild Mongolian pony’s, my hands and feet as thick as unread books. My nose was too long, my cheeks too sharp. Everything was just a little too much. That was the legacy of my mother’s side of the family, insufficient excess, too much that was never enough.
Yet I was not dissatisfied with my looks—well, when I was younger, yes, multiply so. But by the time I became a young woman, I knew it was better to be unforgettable than bland. I learned to transform my faults into effect. I darkened my already thick eyebrows, put big-stoned rings on my knobby fingers. I dyed my muddy hair in long streaks of bright gold, red, and lacquer black and wove them into a massive plait that striped the entire length of my back. I adorned myself with layers of unlikely colors, clashing tones married by texture or design or flow. I wore large pendants and medallions, clown-green gaspeite where people expected cool imperial jade. My shoes were my own design, made by a leather worker in Santa Fe. “You see how the toes are curled in the Persian slipper tradition?” I remarked to those who stared too long. “Why do you suppose the Persians started doing that?”
“To show they were upper-class,” one person said.
“To point their feet to heaven?” another ventured.
“To hide curved daggers,” a man guessed.
“I’m afraid the answer is less fascinating than that,” I would say before revealing the fascinating fact: “The curled toes lifted the hems of long skirts to prevent the wearers from tripping as they walked the long carpeted halls to pay obeisance to their shah. And thus you see, they are merely practical.” Every time I said this, people were highly impressed, and later, when they saw me again, they would say, “I remember you! You’re the one with the fascinating shoes.”
At the funeral, Zez, the curator at the Asian who oversaw restoration of ancestor commemorative paintings, said I had a style that was “absolutely memorable, as emblematic as the best portraiture of the Sackler collection.” That was a slight exaggeration, of course, but it was heartfelt. I certainly felt pings and pangs in my own late heart. There was even a moment when I could sense the ache of others. I was suffused with shared grief—at last, to feel so deeply—and I was glad, truly this time, that I did not have children, no dear daughters or sweet sons to feel the kind of pain that would have come from losing me as their mother. But all at once, this sadness-gladness evaporated, and I settled into more reflective thought.
To think, in all my life no one had loved me wholly and desperately. Oh, I once believed that Stefan Cheval cared for me in that way—yes, the Stefan Cheval, the famous one with the controversial footnote. This was eons ago, right before that pink-skinned congressman declared his paintings “obscene and un-American.” My opinion? To be perfectly honest, I thought Stefan’s series Freedom of Choice was overwrought and clichéd. You know the one: gouache overlays of U.S. flags draped over images of dead USDA-stamped livestock, euthanized dogs, and computer monitors—or were they television sets back then? In any case, heaps and heaps of excess to show immoral waste. The reds of the flag were bloody, the blues were garish, and the whites were the color of “discharged sperm,” by Stefan’s own description. He was certainly no Jasper Johns. Yet after Stefan’s work was condemned, it was vociferously defended by First Amendment rights groups, the ACLU, scads of art departments at top-notch universities, and all those civil libertarian types. Let me tell you, it was they who conferred upon the work grandiose messages that Stefan never intended. They saw the complexities of meaningful layers, how some values and lifestyles were judged more important than others, and how we, as Americans, needed the shock of ugliness to recognize our values and responsibilities. The rivulets of sperm were especially frequently cited as representing our greed for pleasure without regard to mess and proliferation. In later years, the mess referred to global warming and the proliferation to nuclear weapons. That’s how it happened, his fame. Prices rose. The mere mortal became an icon. A few years later, even churches and schools had posters and postcards of his most popular themes, and franchise galleries in metropolitan tourist centers did a brisk business in selling his limited-edition signed serigraphs, along with prints of Dali, Neiman, and Kinkade.
I should have been proud to have such a famous man in my life. Socially, we were an ideal duo. As to pleasures of the boudoir, I would discreetly admit that there were innumerable wild nights that met the standards of Dionysus. But I could not give up my work to be an addendum to his. And he was always gone to give a paid lecture, to attend the trustees’ annual dinner at the Met in New York, or to drop by ritzy benefits, several a night, for which he would jump out of a dark-windowed Town Car, lend his conversation-stopping presence for twenty minutes, then move along to the next party. When we were together, we enjoyed playful verbal banter. But we were not tender. We expressed no gushing sentiments one might later regret. And so, the seasons passed, the blooms faded, and nature took its course of inevitable decay. Without argument or discussion, we started to neglect each other. Somehow we remained friends, which meant we could still attend the same parties and greet each other with a pretend kiss on the cheeks. Thus, we circumvented becoming fast talk-talk. We were, at best, gossip on a slow day. Speaking of which, a friend told me Stefan now suffered from major and paralyzing depression, which I was sad to hear. What’s more, she said his signed giclée reproductions, the ones finished off with brush-strokes of clear acrylic swish-swashed here and there by his own hand, were selling on eBay starting at $24.99, no reserve, and that included the frame. As I said, it was quite sad.
I had other men as steady companions, and with each of them I experienced a certain degree of fondness but no heartsickness worth mentioning. Well, plenty of disappointment, of course, and one silly episode of cutting up a negligee bought for a night of passion, an impetuous disregard for money, since the gown was worth far more than the man. But I ask myself now: Was there ever a true great love? Anyone who became the object of my obsession and not simply my affections? I honestly don’t think so. In part, this was my fault. It was my nature, I suppose. I could not let myself become that unmindful. Isn’t that what love is—losing your mind? You don’t care what people think. You don’t see your beloved’s faults, the slight stinginess, the bit of carelessness, the occasional streak of meanness. You don’t mind that he is beneath you socially, educationally, financially, and morally—that’s the worst, I think, deficient morals.
I always minded. I was always cautious of what could go wrong, what was already “not ideal.” I paid attention to the divorce rates. I ask you this: What’s the chance of finding a lasting marriage? Twenty percent? Ten? Did I know any woman who escaped having her heart crushed like a recyclable can? Not a one. From what I have observed, when the anesthesia of love wears off, there is always the pain of consequences. You don’t have to be stupid to marry the wrong man.
Look at my dearest friend and the trustee of my estate, Vera Hendricks. She is one very smart lady, has a doctorate in sociology from Stanford, is the director of one of the largest nonprofit foundations for African-American causes, and she is often included in the Hundred Most Influential Black Women of America. In any case, as smart as Vera is, in her younger years she made the mistake of marrying a jazz drummer, Maxwell, whose job, it seemed to him, was to stay out and smoke and drink and tell jokes, then come home in the early hours of the morning. And he was not black, mind you, but Jewish. Black and Jewish, that was no small aberration among couples in those days. His mother reverted to Orthodoxy, declared him dead, and sat shiva for weeks. When they moved from Boston to Tuscaloosa, Vera and Maxwell had to fight the world to stay together. Vera confided that people’s hatred toward them was their raison d’être as a couple. Later, when they lived in the liberal environs of Berkeley, where mixed marriages were the norm, the fights were just between the two of them and were mostly about money and drinking, among the most common causes of marital discord. Vera was a reminder to me that even intelligent women make stupid mistakes in their choice of men.
As I approached forty, I almost persuaded myself to marry and have a child. The man loved me deeply and spoke in the romantic verbiage of destiny and diminutive nicknames that are too embarrassing to repeat. Naturally, I was flattered and also touched. He was not handsome in a conventional sense, but I found his genius to be powerful, and thus an odd aphrodisiac. He was socially inept and had a number of strange habits, but on the basis of DNA alone, he was an ideal partner for procreation. He spoke of our future child as part angel, part wunderkind. I was intrigued with the idea of a child, but inevitably it would arrive in a package called motherhood, which raised memories of my stepmother. After I refused the man’s numerous entreaties to marry, he was shattered to the depths of his being. I felt quite guilty until he married another woman, six months after. It was sudden, yes, but I was pleased for him, really, I was, and I continued to be pleased when they had a child, then another and another and another. Four! There was so much to be pleased about, wasn’t there? One was the most I would have had, and for years I still think about that child that never was. Would she have loved me?
Look at Vera’s two daughters, I often mused—they have always adored her, even in their teens. They were the progeny that people can only dream of. Might my child have had similar feelings for me? I would have seated her on my lap and brushed her hair, smelling the clean scent. I imagined myself tucking a peony behind her ear, or clipping in her hair a pretty barrette speckled with emeralds. And we would look in the mirror together and know we loved each other so much that tears would spring to our eyes. I realized much later that the child I imagined was my young self, who had longed for just such a mother.
I admit that whenever I heard that certain offspring of friends had turned into misfits and ingrates, I received the news with schadenfreude, and also was relieved to have missed the entire spectrum of parental frustration and despair. What could possibly be more socially devastating than having your own child declare that she hated you, and in front of your less-than-best friends?
This question came to me as I watched Lucinda Pari, the director of communications for the Asian Art Museum, rise and approach the lectern to provide her own contribution to my eulogy. She had once told me that I was like a mother to her. Now here she was at my memorial, praising my virtues: “The money from Bibi Chen’s estate”—she paused to toss her sleek curtain of hair like a racehorse—“money derived from the sale of her deluxe three-unit apartment building and gorgeous, bridge-view penthouse on Leavenworth, in addition to her store, the legendary Immortals, and its enormously successful online catalogue business, on top of a personal collection of Buddhist art—a very fine and well-regarded collection, I might add—has been willed in trust to the museum.” Loud clapping ensued. Lucinda’s talent has always been to mix drama and exaggeration with dull facts so that words balanced out as believable. Before the applause could turn thunderous, she held up her palm and continued: “She leaves us with an estate estimated to be—wait a minute, here it is—twenty million dollars.”
Nobody gasped. The crowd did not jump up and cheer. They clapped loudly, but I wouldn’t say wildly. It was as if my bequest had been expected, and an ordinary amount. When the room quieted all too soon, she held up a plaque. “We will be affixing this in commemeration of her generosity in one of the wings in the new Asian, to be opened in 2003.”
One wing! I knew I should have specified the degree of recognition I should receive for my twenty million. What’s more, the plaque was a modest square, brushed stainless steel, and my name was engraved in letters so small that even the people in the front row had to lean forward and squint. This was the style Lucinda liked, modern and plain, sans serif type as unreadable as directions on a medicine bottle. She and I used to argue in a friendly way about the brochures she had expensive graphic artists design. “Your eyes are still young,” I told her not too long ago. You must realize, people who give vast amounts of money, their eyes are old. If you want this style, you should give people reading glasses to go with it.” That’s when she laughed in a not-so-joking way and said, “You’re just like my mother. There’s always something not right.”
“I’m giving useful information,” I told her.
“Like my mother,” she said.
At my funeral, she said those words again at the very end, only this time she was smiling with tearful eyes: “Bibi was like a mother to me. She was terribly generous with her advice.”
MY OWN MOTHER did not give me advice, terrible or otherwise. She died when I was a baby. So it was my father’s first wife who raised my two brothers and me. She was named Bao Tian—“Sweet Bud,”—which was not quite suitable. We, her stepchildren, were obliged to call that old sour-mouth by the affectionate name of Sweet Ma. Whatever emotional deficits I had, they were due to her. My excesses, as I have already said, were from my mother.
According to Sweet Ma, she would have been my father’s only wife had she not insisted that my father take a concubine so he could seed some descendants. “It was my own idea,” Sweet Ma boasted. “I wasn’t forced to accept the arrangement, not at all.”
As the fates would have it, Sweet Ma was unable to bear children. Soon after she married she caught a spotted-skin disease—it might have been measles, or chickenpox, but was definitely nothing as serious as smallpox. The aftermath of this illness, she lamented, blocked off the path to the warm springs of her body, and thus, she did not have sufficient heat to incubate the seeds of babies. Instead, this useless warmth rose in her body and continued to break out as blisters on her face and hands, and perhaps the rest of her, which we couldn’t see, nor did we want to. Time and time again, she would wonder aloud over what she had done in a past life to deserve such a barren fate. “What small transgression for such bitter punishment?” she cried as the red dots rose. “No children of my own, just the leftovers of others” (meaning my brothers and me). Whenever she ate anything that disagreed with her, from unripe kumquats to veiled insults, her face was soon decorated with crusty splotches that resembled maps of foreign countries. “Do you know where India is?” we would ask her, and swallow our giggles. To soothe herself, she scratched and complained incessantly, and when she ran out of things to say, she would look at me and criticize my mother for endowing me with such ugly features. In time, she scratched her eyebrows bald, and when she did not draw them in with mean black slashes, she resembled a Buddhist nun with knots on her forehead, bulging with anger.
That is how I remember Sweet Ma, always running a sharp finger along her hairless eyebrows, chattering nonsense. My older brothers managed to escape her grasp. They were immune to her influence and treated her with blank-faced disdain. Thus, all her arrows fell on me as her solitary target.
“I tell you this,” Sweet Ma would say to me, “only so you won’t be stricken sick to hear it from someone else.” And she would tell me once again that my mother had been a tiny girl like me, but not as squat, barely seventy pounds at age sixteen when my father took her in as his breeding concubine.
“Itty-bitty though she was,” Sweet Ma said, “she was excessive in everything she did. She ate too many pears. She showed too much emotion. Why, when she laughed she could not control herself, and would fall to the floor in a fit of giggles until I slapped her back to her senses. What’s more, she slept all night long, yet yawned all day. She slept so much her bones turned soft. That was why she was always collapsing like a jellyfish out of water.”
During wartime, when the price of fatty pork had tripled, Sweet Ma could be heard to declare: “Though we have money enough, I’m content to eat meat sparingly, just for the taste and certainly not more than once a week. But your mother, when she was alive, her eyes were like those of a carrion bird, ready to pounce on any dead flesh.” Sweet Ma said a decent woman should never show eagerness for food or any other kind of pleasure. Most of all, she should “never be a burden,” this being what Sweet Ma strived not to be, and she desired in particular for my father to acknowledge this as often as she did.
In those days, we lived in a three-story Tudoresque manor on Rue Massenet in the French Concession of Shanghai. This was not in the best of the best neighborhoods, not like Rue Lafayette, where the Soongs and the Kungs lived, with their villas and vast, multiacred gardens, croquet lawns, and pony carts. Then again, we were not the kind of family to rub our bountiful luck into the faces of our inferiors. All in all, our house was still quite good, better than most people could say they live in, even in comparison with today’s multimillion-dollar San Francisco homes. My father’s family had a longtime cotton mill business and the department store Honesty, which he and my grandfather had started in 1923. It was maybe one degree less prestigious than the department store Sincerity, and while our store was not as large, our merchandise was just as good, and in the case of cotton goods, the quality was even better for the same price. All my father’s foreign customers said so.
He was a typical high-class Shanghainese: absolutely traditional in matters of family and home, and completely modern in business and the outside world. When he left our gates, he entered another realm and adapted himself to it like a chameleon. When necessary, he could speak in other languages, and the accent was absolutely particular to the tutor he had chosen for reasons of class distinction: the English was Oxford, the French was Right Bank, the German was Berlin. He also knew Latin and a formal kind of Manchu into which all the literary classics had been translated. He wore pomade in his sleeked-back hair, smoked filter-tip cigarettes, and conversed on subjects as wide-ranging as riddles, the physiology of different races, and the curiosities of other cuisines. He could argue persuasively on the mistreatment of China in the Treaty of Versailles and compare the political satire in Dante’s Inferno with Tsao’s earlier version of A Dream of Red Mansions. When he stepped back through the gates of our family home, he reverted to his private self. He read much, but seldom spoke, and truly, there was no need in a household whose women worshipped him and anticipated his needs before they ever occurred to him.
His foreign friends called him Philip. My brothers’ English names were Preston and Nobel, which were auspicious, sounding like the word “president” and the name of the prestigious prize that comes with a lot of money. Sweet Ma chose the name Bertha, because my father said it was close-sounding to “Bao Tian,” and my mother had been known as “Little Bit,” which was how she pronounced the Western name Elizabeth, which my father had given her. My father called me Bibi, which was both a Western name and short for Bifang, the name my mother bestowed on me. As you can imagine, we were a worldly family. My brothers and I had English- and French-speaking tutors, so we could receive a modern education. This also gave us secret languages to use in front of Sweet Ma, who knew only Shanghainese.
One time, Nobel reported that our Bedlington terrier, whom Sweet Ma detested, had left a small offering in her room—“Il à fait la merde sur le tapis”—and because the pattern in the rug masked the appearance of fresh fecal deposits, our stepmother could not figure out why every room in the house stank until it was too late. The boys had a fondness for adding surprise elements to Sweet Ma’s vials of medicines and snuff bottles. Caca d’oie, collected from the scummy shoals of our goose pen, was a favorite because it encompassed the trifecta of disgusting things: foul, slimy, and bilious green. To hear them tell me what they had done left me laughing helplessly on the floor. I so miss my brothers!
More often, however, my brothers were not at home to buffet Sweet Ma’s assaults upon me. Whenever I sat before the keys of the piano, Sweet Ma recounted my mother’s poor musicianship as a possible cause of mine. I defended my mother once, telling Sweet Ma that my father had recently told some guests that she “could make Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu sound like fast-running water in a spring brook.”
“Ssss!” Sweet Ma countered with irritation. “That was said to guests who are foreigners. They expect inflated talk. They have no shame, no propriety, no standards of excellence. Besides, any school-girl can play that easy song, even you, if you practiced a little harder.” And then she poked the side of my head for good effect.
Sweet Ma said that my father did not need to inflate her worth, because they had a complete understanding. “Superfluous words are not necessary when the marriage is balanced, in perfect harmony,” she told me. “And that is because our union was fated to be.”
At the time, it did not occur to me to question what she said, and my brothers had no opinions on love, or if they did, they would not share them with me. I was thus left to assume that a good marriage was one in which the husband respected the wife’s privacy. He did not intrude in her life, visit her rooms, or bother her with questions. There was no need to speak to each other, since they were of the same mind.
But one day my uncle and his family came for a visit several months long. My cousin Yuhang and I kept each other company morning to night. We were like sisters, although we saw each other only once a year. On that particular visit, she told me that she had overheard her parents and their friends gossiping—which, at the time, was the only way anyone learned the truth. The gossip had to do with the union between Sweet Ma and my father. It had been agreed to before their births. In 1909, two comrades from different life circumstances vowed that if the revolution to end the Ching dynasty succeeded and they were still alive to see it, their families should be united by marriage. Well, the Ching was overthrown in 1911, and the comrade with a son had a reputation so high it was said to have reached the heavens. That would be my father’s family. The other had a daughter, and his household clung to earth like the rotted roots of a tree about to tilt over with the next small gust. That would be Sweet Ma’s household. When the poor comrade with the daughter ran into the rich one with the son, he mentioned their earlier vow, incompatible in status though their lives were. It was widely known, the servants said, that my grandfather was a man of high morals for forcing his eldest son to marry a girl so plain, so lacking in any charms that would compensate for her embarrassingly meager dowry. No wonder the son took on a concubine as soon as he could.
Of course, Sweet Ma reported things differently: “Your mother,” she said, “was the daughter of a concubine to a family of only middle status. The concubine had given birth to ten healthy babies, all boys except one. That one girl, while weedy in looks at age sixteen, held promise for being as baby-prolific as her mother. I suggested her to your father, and he said I was wife enough. But I insisted that a stallion must have mares, and mares produce broods, so he mustn’t be a mule.”
According to Sweet Ma, the relationship my father had with my mother was “very polite, as one should be toward strangers.” In fact, my father was much too kind, and my mother learned to take advantage of this. The way Sweet Ma described it: “She was a schemer. She’d put on her rose-colored dress, twirl her favorite flower hairpin, and with eyes dishonestly lowered, she would raise that simpering smile of hers toward your father. Oh, I knew what she was up to. She was always begging money to pay off the gambling debts of her nine brothers. I learned too late that her entire family was a nest of snake spawn. Don’t you grow up to be like them, or I’ll let the rats in to chew you up at night.”
According to Sweet Ma, my mother proved true to her breeding and excelled at becoming pregnant every year. “She gave birth to your eldest brother,” Sweet Ma said, counting on her fingers. “Then there was your second brother. After that, three blue babies, drowned in the womb, which was a shame but not so tragic, since they were girls.”
I came along in 1937, and Sweet Ma was there to witness my dramatic arrival. “You should have seen your mother when she was nine months pregnant with you. She looked like a melon balanced on chopsticks, teetering this way and that.… Early in the morning, that’s when her water broke, after making us wait all night. The winter sky was the color of spent coal, and so was your mother’s face.… You were too big to come out between her legs, so the midwives had to slice her nearly in two and pull you out like a fatty tapeworm. You weighed over ten pounds, and you had bloody hair down to your shoulders.”
I shivered when she said that.
“Bifang, your mother named you, though heaven knows I tried to persuade her to choose something else. ‘Good-reputation jade’ sounds like an advertisement poster, in my opinion, what pleases the ear of those who don’t know better. ‘Bifang, bifang, buy your bifang here!’ Ha, fang pi would be a better name to call you, a fart, yes indeed, that’s what you were, all right, a stinky little fart that shot out of her bottom.”
Sweet Ma held up a hairpin for me to see but not touch. “She named you Bifang because your father gave her this ugly thing to commemorate your successful birth.” It was a hairpin with a hundred tiny leaves carved out of bright imperial-green jade. Within the branches were peony blossoms made of tiny diamonds. The shining hairpin, when placed in the hair, suggested a glorious spring. Upon seeing that hairpin for the first time, I knew why she named me Bifang: I was her precious jade, her budding treasure, her glorious spring. Bifang.
Sweet Ma tried to change my school name as well. “I like the name Bibi,” I said. “Father calls me that.”
“Well, there’s nothing good about that name, either. It’s especially common. Your father had a Dutch customer whose wife was named Bibi. He asked the Dutch lady if that was an unusual name in her country. And she said, ‘Heavens, no. “Bibi” can be French, it can be German, Italian even, so really, it is found everywhere.’ And your father clapped his hands and said there was an expression that meant exactly that: bibi jie shi—can be found everywhere. If it was found everywhere, he said, to be polite, it must be popular, very much in favor. To my way of thinking, if it’s found everywhere then it must be a common nuisance, like flies and dust.” The day Sweet Ma said this, she was wearing my mother’s hairpin, the one she said was so ugly. I wanted to pull it out. And because I could not, I said in my strongest voice that I had already chosen Bibi as my school name and I would not change it. Sweet Ma then said if I was old enough to choose my name, I was old enough to know the true circumstances of my tiny mother’s death.
“She died of excess and dissatisfaction,” Sweet Ma divulged. “Too much but never enough. She knew I was your father’s first wife, the most respected, the most favored. No matter how many sons she had, he would probably one day turn her out the door and replace her with another.”
“Father said that?”
Sweet Ma did not confirm or deny. Instead she said, “You see, respect is lasting. Fondness is passing, a whim for a season or two, only to be replaced by a new fancy. All men do this. Your mother knew this, I knew this. Someday you will, too. But rather than accept her situation in life, your mother lost all control of her senses. She began to crave sweets. She couldn’t stop eating them. And she was thirsty all the time, drinking like the genie who swallowed the ocean and spit it back up. One day, a ghost saw how weak she was in spirit and entered her body through the hole in her stomach. Your mother fell to the ground, twitching and babbling, and then she was still.”
In my made-up memory, I saw my tiny mother rise from her bed and go over to a pot of sugared black sesame seed soup. She dipped her fingers to taste if it was sweet enough. It was not. She added more lumps of sugar, more, more, more. Then she stirred the hot, dark paste, tipped bowlful after bowlful into her mouth, filling her stomach to the level of her throat, the hollow of her mouth, until she fell to the floor, wet and drowned.
When I developed diabetes, just five years ago, I thought my mother might have died of the same thing, that her blood was either too sweet or not sweet enough. Diabetes, I found, is a constant battle of balance. Anyway, that was how I knew my mother, through the faults I inherited: the crooked lower teeth, the upward scrunch of the left eyebrow, the desire for more than could ever be satisfied in a normal person.
The night we left Shanghai forever, Sweet Ma made one more show of her endless sacrifice. She refused to go. “I would be useless over in America, unable to speak English,” she said coyly to my father. “And I don’t want to be a burden. Besides, Bifang is almost thirteen, too old now for a nursemaid.” She glanced in my direction, waiting for me to contradict her with vigorous protests.
My father said: “Don’t argue about this. Of course you’re coming.” He was in a hurry, because waiting for him was the gatekeeper, a mean man named Luo, whom we all disliked. He had made arrangements for our hasty departure before Shanghai fell completely under Communist control.
In front of my brothers, our grandfather, and the servants, Sweet Ma continued to argue, again looking for me to say the correct words. I was supposed to fling myself at her feet, knock my head on the floor, and beg her not to leave me. And because I did not do so, she became more determined to extract this plea from me. “Bifang doesn’t need me,” she said. “She already told me so.”
It was true. Only that morning, I had said similar words to her. She had been berating me for sleeping too long. She called me Rotten Soft Bones. She said I was just like my mother, and if I didn’t cure myself of these bad habits, I, too, would meet a terrible demise. I was not quite awake, and in my longing to cling to sleep, I placed my hands over my ears and thought I was shouting in my dreams: “Stop, you moaning milk-cow.” And the next thing I knew, Sweet Ma was slapping me back to my senses.
Now there I was with my family, about to flee in the middle of the night, with gold and diamonds stuffed into the soft bodies of my dolls, and there was this: my mother’s hairpin. I had stolen it from Sweet Ma’s dresser and had sewn it into my coat lining.
Gatekeeper Luo urged us to hurry, and Sweet Ma was still staging threats not to go. We were all supposed to plead for her to change her mind. My mind went in a new direction. What would happen if Sweet Ma did stay behind? How would my life change?
Pondering such thoughts made my chest ticklish and weak. I felt my knees and spine growing soft. This always happened when I anticipated anything good or bad, whenever I came close to allowing myself to feel the extremes of emotion. Since my mother had been the same way, I feared that I, too, would one day lose control and fall into a heap and die of excess. I had thus learned to push down my feelings, to force myself to not care, to do nothing and let things happen, come what may.
Silence would now decide my fate. “Speak,” Father coaxed. “Apologize.”
I waited in silence. “Hurry now!” he scolded. A minute must have passed. My legs were growing weak again. Push it down, I told myself, push down your wish.
Father finally broke in and repeated to Sweet Ma: “Of course you’re coming,” but Sweet Ma beat her chest, shouting, “It’s finished! I would rather have the Communists run a bayonet through me than be forced to go with that wicked child!” And she lurched out of the room.
When we boarded the boat to Haiphong, I reflected in terror over what I had done. I stood on the deck as the boat pulled away, the black sky clotted with stars and galaxies, and I imagined what bright life awaited us in a new land just over the horizon. We were going to America, where joy was so abundant you did not have to consider it luck.
I pictured Sweet Ma alone in our family house on Rue Massenet, the rooms still richly furnished, but ghostly, empty of life. Soon the soldiers with bayonets would come into the house and smash its capitalist symbols, and all the while, Sweet Ma would sit in her usual chair, telling the revolutionaries she didn’t want to be a burden. Perhaps they would punish her anyway for her bourgeois life. They might slap her browless face—I could picture it so clearly—the cruel men shouting for her to use her hair and tears to mop the floor. They would kick her thighs to hurry her up, aim a boot at her bottom. As I relished this scenario, playing it over and over in my mind, I became weak-limbed with fear and exhilaration, a strange combination that made me feel truly malevolent. I sensed I would be punished in my next life. I would become a cow and she the crow who would peck my flanks. And with that image in my mind, I suddenly felt bony fingers pluck my cheek, pinching until I tasted blood.
It was Sweet Ma. Father had gone back and insisted three more times that she come. Though her dignity was shaken, she had allowed herself to be pulled from her chair and carried screaming to the waiting car that whisked them both to the wharf. Thus, Sweet Ma returned, more determined than ever to put some sense into my brain by beating the evil out of my body. How lucky was I that she continued as my dim guiding light.
Sweet Ma tried to shape my mind, pounding it like dumpling dough. And the more she tried, the more I became like my mother, so she said. I was greedy, she warned, and could not fill my heart with enough pleasure, my stomach with enough contentment, my body with enough sleep. I was like a rice basket with a rat hole at the bottom, and thus could not be satisfied and overflow, nor could I be filled. I would never know the full depth and breadth of love, beauty, or happiness. She said it like a curse.
Because of her criticism, I acted as if I were even more deficient in feeling, particularly toward her. I found that a blank face and a bland heart were the very things that made Sweet Ma’s eyebrows bulge to bursting. My reasoning was this: How could I be wounded when I didn’t care? In time, I felt I was growing stronger and stronger. My legs no longer buckled, and I learned to hide from pain. I hid my deepest feelings so well I forgot where I had placed them.
I remember the terrible night I realized that Sweet Ma’s curse had come true. It was a year after I started university life, and I had returned home at Sweet Ma’s command to join the family celebration of the Autumn Festival, what is traditionally a time of thanksgiving. Now here we were, my father and brothers and I, at the usual gathering of distant relatives and Chinese friends, both longtime citizens and the recently immigrated. We were in the backyard of a second cousin’s house in Menlo Park, about to view the full moon rise. We carried paper lanterns with sputtering candles, and walked toward the swimming pool. And in that pool, I saw the moon appear and shimmer, a golden melon and not just a flat disc, as it had always appeared to me before. I heard people moan with happiness. I saw their mouths pop open, the rims of their eyes drip with tears.
My mouth was closed, my eyes were dry. I could see the moon as clearly as they, and I could even appreciate its special glories. But why didn’t I flood in the same way? Why was their happiness tenfold what I felt? Did I lack the proper connection between the senses and the heart?
And then I realized that this was my habit. To hold back my feelings. To keep my knees from buckling. And with that knowledge, I was ready to feel whatever I wanted, as fully as I wanted. I gazed at the moon and willed myself to feel all the emotions. I waited for joy and awe to wash over me. I was determined, I was ready, I was anticipating, expecting, hoping … but nothing happened. My legs stood strong and straight.
That night of the moon viewing I realized I would always be deficient in great feeling. It was because I never had a proper mother while I was growing up. A mother is the one who fills your heart in the first place. She teaches you the nature of happiness: what is the right amount, what is too much, and the kind that makes you want more of what is bad for you. A mother helps her baby flex her first feelings of pleasure. She teaches her when to later exercise restraint, or to take squealing joy in recognizing the fluttering leaves of the gingko tree, to sense a quieter but more profound satisfaction in chancing upon an everlasting pine. A mother enables you to realize that there are different levels of beauty, and therein lie the sources of pleasure, some of which are popular and ordinary, and thus of brief value, and others of which are difficult and rare, and hence worth pursing.
But through my formative years, I had only Sweet Ma. That woman with her parched innards tried to push upon me her notion of good things—telling me to be glad I was not as bare-dressed as a tree in winter, to be grateful that the little skeleton of a girl lying in a gutter was not me, to recognize that the shade of a willow tree in unbearable heat was a happy sacrifice I could make to those who were either older or younger than I was, which was everybody, as it always turned out. I followed Sweet Ma’s instructions so that eventually I could feel not naturally, but only carefully.
When my father died, I felt loss and sadness, to be sure, but not the turmoil or devastation that my brothers and stepmother showed. With romance, I felt pangs of love, yet never the passion that overcame my friends.
But then I discovered art. I saw for the first time nature and pure feelings expressed in a form I could understand. A painting was a translation of the language of my heart. My emotions were all there—but in a painting, a sculpture. I went to museum after museum, into the labyrinths of rooms and that of my own soul. And there they were—my feelings, and all of them natural, spontaneous, truthful, and free. My heart cavorted within shapes and shadows and splashes, in patterns, repetitions, and abruptly ending lines. My soul shivered in tiny feathered strokes, one eyelash at a time.
And so I began to collect art. In this way, I was able to surround myself with the inexpressible, to exult in the souls of others. What a lifelong debt I owe to art!
As for Sweet Ma, she remained her bitter, complaining self. When my father died, I put her in an apartment in my building and hired a housekeeper who could keep things tidy and cook Chinese food for her. Sweet Ma never lifted a finger, except to scold me or anyone else who was unlucky enough to cross her path. When she became infirm, I put her in the best of senior residences, at great expense to myself. She was not grateful. She called it Death’s Waiting Room. For years, I told myself to be patient, knowing she would soon die. Surely her explosive anger might cause a similar effect on the blood vessels or her brain or heart. She was nearly ninety-one and I only sixty-three when I passed her by and flew out of this world.
Oh, how she wept. She recalled our past together as such a rosy relationship that I wondered if she was more senile than I thought. Or could it be that she had actually had a change of heart? When I discerned the answer, I changed my mind about her as well. Whereas I once looked forward to her end, I now wish her a long, long life. Let her not leave Death’s Waiting Room and join me as her companion in the afterlife.
WHEN THE FIRST PART of my funeral ended, the crowd drifted down the steps of the de Young Museum and onto Tea Garden Drive. My casket was sealed with wax, placed on dollies, and quickly wheeled to a delivery bay, where a hearse was waiting. The hearse drove out of the parking lot, just as giggly children from the Chinese American International School—to which I had always been a generous benefactor—left the bandshell in the Music Concourse with their sweet-sounding instruments and filed behind the hearse. From the green wooden benches rose another two dozen students wearing white sackcloth—loose jackets, pants, and caps, costumes left over from the previous year’s spring pageant. They fell in behind the band. Two sturdy boys on stilts held up a poster-mounted photo of me in my Himalayan hairdo. A wreath of flowers framed my blown-up face and its too-broad smile. Dear me, it looked as if I were campaigning to become Mayor of the Underworld!
In a short while, the mourners, as well as a dozen or so tourists on rented Rollerblades and a few dozen more who had been expelled from the gates of the Japanese Tea Garden, gathered behind the band, following the busy hand signals of the museum staff. The flutes trilled, the cymbals tinkled, the drums rumbled, and a flock of fat pigeons flew up with a windy flapping of wings, and that was how we began our walk to pay tribute to “a great lady lost.”
Though it was December, the weather was sunny and without wind, which made everyone feel enlivened, unable to grieve with true despair. Those who had signed up for the ill-fated Burma Road trip were ambling in a cluster toward the rear. They were the ones I decided to join, listening at the back of their minds. As we were circling the concourse, Harry Bailley brought up the subject of canceling. “What fun would it be without our Bibi?” he said in that rich baritone I have always loved listening to on his television show. “Who would tell us what to savor, what to see?” All very touching questions.
Marlena Chu was quick to agree. “It just wouldn’t be the same,” she said in an elegant voice, tinged with an accent shaped by her Shanghainese birth, her childhood in São Paulo, her British teachers, and her studies at the Sorbonne. She came from a family of former vast wealth and power, who were reduced on their exodus to South America to becoming merely comfortably well-off. Marlena bought fine art as a professional curator for private collections and commissioned sculptural installations for corporations setting up their international headquarters in far-flung places. I also happened to know that she had a potential new client in Milan. She would have been relieved to have a legitimate reason to cancel the Burma trip. However, her twelve-year-old daughter, Esme, who dreamed of helping Burmese orphans and had bragged to her teacher and classmates of this noble cause, would have protested unceasingly had she been told they were now going to fashionable Italy instead.
How I knew all this, I had no notion at first, didn’t even wonder how I knew. But I sensed others as clearly as I sensed myself; their feelings became mine. I was privy to their secret thoughts: their motives and desires, guilt feelings and regrets, joys and fears, as well as the shades of truth within what they said, and what they refrained from saying. The thoughts swam about me like schools of colorful fish, and as people spoke, their true feelings dove through me in a flash. It was that shocking and effortless. The Mind of Others—that’s what the Buddha would have called it.
Whatever the case, with this enlarged consciousness, I eavesdropped on my friends as they discussed the upcoming Burma trip. “To tell the truth,” I heard Roxanne Scarangello say, “I’ve been asking myself why I even agreed to go to Burma.” This was a small jab at her husband, Dwight Massey, who had booked them on the trip without gaining her full enthusiasm. It could be argued that she had never said no, not absolutely. While she was busy with a critical part of her research, she told him to make the arrangements but said she wouldn’t mind another trip to the Galápagos, so she could further document ecological changes and their effects on the endemic species of the islands. That was the topic of her forthcoming book. She was an evolutionary biologist, a Darwin scholar, and a MacArthur fellow.
Her husband was a behavioral psychologist who had once been her student; he was thirty-one, twelve years her junior. His specialization was the neurological differences between males and females, “often erroneously referred to as differences in mean IQ,” Dwight would say, “rather than different fluencies in regional areas of the brain.” He was now assisting with the research project of another scientist, investigating the means by which squirrels were able to bury nuts in a hundred-some places, without any discernible pattern except a roughly circular one, and then months later find the nuts again. What strategies did females use to bury and find the nuts? What strategies did the males use? Were they different? Which were more efficient? It was an interesting project, but it was not Dwight’s. He was an underling. His career thus far had been determined more by the universities where Roxanne was sought.
Dwight had worshipped Roxanne unquestioningly when they first paired up—this was ten years back, shortly after she appeared in Esquire’s “Women We Love” issue. He was twenty-one, her brightest student. In recent times he more frequently competed with her intellectually, as well as physically. Both Roxanne and Dwight were appallingly athletic and loved very much to perspire. So they had much in common. But if you were to meet them for the first time, you might think, as I did, that they were an unlikely couple. She was muscular and stocky, round-faced and ruddy-complexioned, with a demeanor that was at once smart and friendly. He was lanky, had sharp-angled facial features that made him look roguish, and his manner seemed combative and arrogant. She evinced confidence, and he acted like the nippy underdog.
“It’s the ethics that bother me,” Roxanne now said. “If you go to Burma, it’s in some ways a financial collusion with a corrupt regime.”
Marlena stepped in: “Roxanne makes a very good point. When we signed up, it seemed that the regime was improving matters. They were on the verge of some kind of rapprochement with that woman, the Nobel Peace Prize winner—”
“Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Dwight.
“—and to go,” Marlena continued, “when many are honoring the boycott, well, it’s similar to crossing a picket line, I think—”
Dwight cut her off again. “You know what kind of people blindly follow boycotts? Same ones who say that eating hamburgers means you approve of torturing cows. It’s a form of liberal fascism. Boycotts don’t help anyone, not real people. It just makes the do-gooders feel good.…” Wherever he really stood on the matter of boycotts, Dwight keenly wanted to make this trip because he had learned only a year before that his great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side had gone to Burma in 1883, leaving his wife and seven children in Huddersfield, a city of industry in Yorkshire. He took a job with a British timber company, and, as the story was reported in the family, he was ambushed by natives on the banks of the Irrawaddy in 1885, the year before the British officially took over old Burmah. Dwight felt an uncanny affinity toward his ancestor, as though some genetic memory were driving him to that part of the world. As a behavioral psychologist, he knew that wasn’t scientifically possible, yet he was intrigued by it, and lately, obsessed.
“What is the point of not doing something?” he went on arguing. “Don’t eat beef, feel good about saving cows. Boycott Burma, feel good about not going. But what good have you really done? Whom have you saved? You’ve chosen to vacation in fucking Bali instead.…”
“Can we discuss this more rationally?” Vera said. My dear friend despised hearing people use sexual expletives for emphasis. Invoke religion instead, she’d say to those in her organization—use the “damn” and “God Almighty” that show strength of conviction. Use the f-word for what it was intended, the deep-down guttural pleasure of sex. And don’t bring it into arguments where hearts and brains should prevail. She was known to have kicked people off projects at work for lesser linguistic offenses. She observed that Dwight was smart and abrasive, and this combination was worse than being simply stupid and annoying. It made people want to pummel him to bits, though they might have agreed with some of what he had to say.
“Sanctions worked in South Africa—” Marlena began.
“Because the oppressors were white, and rich enough to feel the pinch,” Dwight finished. “The U.S. sanctions in Burma are pretty ineffectual. Burma does most of its trade with other Asian countries. Why should they care if we disapprove of them? Come on, what’s the incentive?”
“We could reroute to Nepal,” another from our little group said. That would be Moff, an old friend of Harry’s from boarding school days at École Monte Rosa in Switzerland, which they had attended while their diplomat fathers were assigned to countries without English-speaking schools. Moff was interested in Nepal because he owned a bamboo farm near Salinas, and, as it happened, he had been doing research on harvestable wood products in the Nepal lowlands and the possibility of living there six months out of the year. His name was actually Mark Moffett, but he’d been known as Moff since Harry started calling him that in boyhood. The two friends were now in their forties and divorced. For the last four years they had made a ritual of traveling together during winter holidays.
Moff figured that his fifteen-year-old son, Rupert, would love Katmandu as much as he had at that age. But his ex-wife would no doubt throw his Nepalese singing bowls at his balls if he took their son to that “hippie place.” In the custody battle for Rupert, she had accused Moff of being a drug addict, as if he had been smoking crack ’round the clock rather than just a few friendly tokes of weed every now and then. It had been a battle to get her to let Rupert with him to China and Burma for the holidays.
Vera cleared her throat to get everyone’s attention. “My dear fellow travelers, I hate to tell you this, but to change or cancel anything now means forfeiting the entire deposit, which, by the way, is one hundred percent of the cost since we are now just days from our departure date.”
“Good Lord, that’s outrageous!” Harry exclaimed.
“What about our trip insurance?” Marlena said. “That would cover it. Unexpected death.”
“I’m sorry to report Bibi didn’t buy any.” Why was Vera apologizing for my sake? As everyone murmured varying degrees of shock, dismay, and disgust, I shouted and pounded my fist into my palm to make my point. But no one could hear me, of course, except Poochini, who perked his ears, raised his nose, and yelped as he tried to sniff me out.
“Shush,” Harry said, and when Poochini was quiet for five seconds, Harry stuffed another piece of desiccated liver into my darling’s mouth.
For the record, let me clarify the facts. While I ultimately did not buy the insurance, I most certainly brought the subject up, at least twice. I remember specifically that I went over how much extra per person it was for the insurance, to which Harry had responded his usual “Good Lord, that’s outrageous.” What did he mean by “outrageous”? Did he want me to buy the damn insurance or not? I’m not some dog he can train by saying, “Good, Bibi. Shush, Bibi,” until I know what he wants me to do. I then went on to detail the cost for various plans, from simple trip cancellation, through emergency medical evacuation in a helicopter and transfer to a Western hospital. I explained the variations in policies on preexisting conditions, and whether, for example, a broken bone or a bite from a possibly rabid dog would qualify for evacuation. And who was listening? Nobody except Roxanne’s half sister, Heidi Stark, who worries about everything. “Bibi, is there malaria at that time of year?” “Bibi, should we bring anti-venom for snakes?” “Bibi, I read about a woman who got epilepsy from being bitten by a monkey in Madagascar.” On and on she went, until Harry put his hand on her shoulder and said, “Heidi, love, you needn’t be so grim. Why not anticipate an excellent time?”
The trouble was, they all anticipated an excellent time. What was grim was forgotten; the encephalitic monkeys were shooed away, as was the need for insurance—that is, until my funeral. Then it became my fault that they could not anticipate an excellent time, my fault that they could not cancel the trip. How quickly they turned into petulant creatures, as whiny as children following their mother on a hot day of errands.
The hearse rolled, the band marched, and my friends trudged along the eucalyptus-lined lane, past throngs of gaping people spilling out of the California Academy of Sciences building, the toddlers clinging to their rubber replicas of dinosaurs and shouting with glee to see this unexpected parade.
“Woof-woof! Love your show!” some voices called out.
Harry nodded to his fans. “Quite embarrassing,” he said in a low but pleased voice. With his television smile still affixed, he turned back to our group and, now infused with bravado by public worship, said heroically: “Well, what to do? The deed is done, the die is cast, best to make a go of it, I say. To Burma.”
Vera nodded. “No one could be as wonderful as our Bibi, but there’s the practical matter of finding another tour leader. That’s the simple imperative.”
“Someone knowledgeable about Burma,” Marlena added. “Someone who’s been many times. That Asian art expert, Dr. Wu, perhaps. I hear he’s fantastic.”
“Top-notch,” Harry agreed.
“Whoever we get for a tour leader,” Dwight added, “we should have them cut out half of the cultural-museum shit and add in more bicycling or trekking activities instead.”
Heidi chimed in: “I also think we should each research something about Burma, like its history, politics, or culture. Bibi knew so much.”
One by one they acquiesced, but not before offering amendments and disagreements, then more complicated refinements and caveats—an omen of things to come.
By the time we reached John F. Kennedy Drive, the band was playing a squeaky version of “Amazing Grace” on the two-stringed erhu, and I had been forgiven by the group for not having bought trip cancellation insurance. As two motorcycle police held traffic at bay, the hearse sped off, and I bid my body a silent adieu. Then Harry asked the rest of the travelers to join him in a circle for a team high five, intoning, “May Bibi join us in spirit.”
So that was how it came about. They hoped that I would go. How could I not?
Almost everything I had planned came undone. My original itinerary began thusly: My friends, those lovers of art, most of them rich, intelligent, and spoiled, would spend a week in China and arrive in Burma on Christmas Day.
It started as planned: On December 18th, after nearly two days of travel and two stopovers, we arrived in Lijiang, China, the “Land Beyond the Clouds.” My group was met by the best tour guide of the region, one I had used on a previous trip. Mr. Qin Zheng was an athletic young man, who wore designer-label jeans, Nike sneakers, and a “Harvard”-emblazoned pullover. My friends were surprised that he looked so Western, and except for the Chinese accent, he could have been one of them. He narrated the sights they could still appreciate as twilight approached.
From the window of the deluxe air-conditioned tour bus, my friends and I could see the startling snowcapped peaks of Tibet glinting in the distance. Each time I have seen them, it is as amazing as the first.
Vera was jingling and jangling on the bumpy bus ride. She wore a profusion of ethnic-style jewelry around her neck, and encircling both wrists and ankles, and this was complemented by a colorful caftan, sized extra-large, though she was hardly fat, merely tall and big-boned. Since turning fifty, ten years ago, she had decided that her usual garb should be no less comfortable than what she wore to bed. Thrown over her shoulders was another of her trademarks: a raw-silk scarf printed with African motifs of her own design. Her hair, dyed taupe brown, had been shorn into a springy cap of baby’s tears.
Seated next to her on the bus was the newly designated tour leader, Bennie Trueba y Cela, who began to read aloud the commentary I had meticulously appended to the itinerary months before: “Many believe Lijiang is the fabled city of Shangri-La that James Hilton described in his novel Lost Horizon.…” In remembering me, Vera chuckled, but her eyes stung with tears and she used her scarf to wipe away the wetness on her smooth cheeks.
I confess I was overwhelmed with self-pity. Since my death, it had taken me some time to accustom myself to the constant effusion of emotions. Whereas I had lacked dimension of feeling my entire life, now, through others, there was width, volume, and density ever growing. Could it be that I was sprouting more of the six supernatural talents that Sakyamuni received before he became the Buddha? Did I have the Celestial Eye, the Celestial Ear, along with the Mind of Others? But what good did it do me to have them? I was terribly frustrated that whenever I spoke, no one could hear me. They did not know I was with them. They did not hear me vehemently disapprove of suggested changes to the careful tour plans I had made. And now look, they had no idea that the “commentary” I had planted in the itinerary was often meant to be humorous asides that I would have elucidated upon during the actual tour.
The remark about Shangri-La, for example: I had intended to follow that with a discussion about the various permutations of “Shangri-La” notions. Certainly it is a cliché used to lure tourists to any site—from Tibet to Titicaca—that resembles a high mountainous outpost. Shangri-La: ethereally beautiful, hard to reach, and expensive once you get there. It conjures words most delightful to tourists’ ears: “rare, remote, primitive, and strange.” If the service is poor, blame it on the altitude. So compelling is the name that right this minute, workmen, bulldozers, and cement trucks are busily remodeling a ham-let near the China – Tibet border that claims to be the true Shangri-La.
I would have brought up the link to geography as well, the descriptions of the botanist Joseph Rock, whose various expeditions for National Geographic in the 1920s and early 1930s led to his discovery of a lush green valley tucked in the heart of a Himalayan mountain topped by a “cone” of snow, as described in his article published in 1931. Some of the inhabitants there were purported to be more than a hundred fifty years old. (I have met demented residents at old-age homes who have made similar claims.) James Hilton must have read the same article by Rock, for soon after, he used similar descriptions in penning the mythical Shangri-La. Voilà, the myth was hatched, delusions and all.
But the most interesting aspect to me is the other Shangri-La alluded to in Lost Horizon, and that is a state of mind, one of moderation and acceptance. Those who practice restraint might in turn be rewarded with a prolonged life, even immortality, whereas those who don’t will surely die as a direct result of their uncontrolled impulses. In that world, blasé is bliss, and passion is sans raison. Passionate people create too many problems: They are reckless. They endanger others in their pursuit of fetishes and infatuations. And they self-agitate when it is better to simply relax and let matters be. That is the reason some believe Shangri-La is so important as the antidote. It is a mindset for the masses—one might bottle it as Sublime Indifference, a potion that induces people to follow the safest route, which is, of course, the status quo, anesthesia for the soul. Throughout the world you can find many Shangri-Las. I have lived in my share of them. Plenty of dictators have used them as a means to quell the populace—be quiet or be killed. It is so in Burma. But in art, lovely subversive art, you see what breaks through in spite of restraint, or even because of it. Art despises placidity and smooth surfaces. Without art, I would have drowned under still waters.
THERE WAS NOTHING PLACID about Wendy Brookhyser. She had come to Burma with an itch in her brain and a fever in her heart. She wanted to fight for Burmese rights, for democracy and freedom of speech. She could not tell anyone that, however. That would be dangerous. To her fellow travelers, Wendy said she was the director of a family foundation. And that was indeed the case, a foundation set up by her mother, Mary Ellen Brookhyser Feingold Fong, the “marrying widow,” as she was unkindly called in some circles. For her position as director, Wendy had never done much more than attend an occasional meeting. For that, she received a salary sufficient for a carefree lifestyle with regular infusions from her mother for her birthday, Christmas, Chanukah, and Chinese New Year. Money was her birthright, but since her teens, she was adamant she would not become a party-throwing socialite like her mother.
Here I must interject my own opinion that the aforementioned mother was not the senseless schemer her daughter made her out to be. Mary Ellen gave the best parties to draw attention to worthy causes. She didn’t simply write checks to charities like other nine-digit doyennes who had generous pocketbooks but not the time to amplify their compassion. She was utterly involved, financially and morally. I knew this because Mary Ellen was a friend of mine—yes, I believe I can call her that, for we chaired a fair number of events together. And she was quite the compulsive organizer, one who attended every boring planning meeting. I’m afraid I had a rather embarrassing habit of dozing at some of those. Mary Ellen was all about details; she knew if the proposed dates for events conflicted with the social calendars of the big money-givers. And because of her social web, she could line up celebrities to generate “publicity heat,” identifying the singers, movie stars, or athletes who could be inveigled on the basis of their family background of genetic disease, mental illness, addiction, cancer, murder, sexual abuse, senseless tragedy, and other sorts of unhappinesses that fuel causes and then galas for causes. She also kept a meticulous record of those black-tie events for which she had bought tables at the highest level, and whose event chair might then be vulnerable to the unspoken but well-understood system of payback. It was all based on connections and intimate gossip, don’t you see. In any case, I knew I could always count on Mary Ellen to contribute yearly to Self-Help for the Elderly by pointing out that it served those with Alzheimer’s, the illness to which her first husband had succumbed; he was, by the way, the one who practically invented PVC pipes and made a huge fortune distributing them. Ernie Brookhyser. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. One of the many benefits Mary Ellen had attended was for the Asian Art Museum. During the live auction, she was high bidder for the Burma Road trip—paid thrice the value, I was pleased to see. She then gave the trip for two to Wendy as a birthday present.
Wendy had first thought to refuse the trip and also rebuke her politically unconscious mother for thinking her daughter might holiday in a country run by a repressive regime. She had fumed about this over lunch with a former Berkeley housemate, Phil Gutman, the director of Free to Speak International. Phil thought the all-expenses-paid trip might be useful for “discreet information-gathering.” It could be a humanitarian project, and a necessary one. Wendy might masquerade as a pleasure-seeker, go along with the happy-go-lucky tourists, and when the opportunity presented itself, she could talk to Burmese students, have casual conversations with natives to learn who among their neighbors, friends, and family members were missing. Free to Speak might later float her report as a spec piece for The Nation. But Phil also underscored that she had to be extremely careful. Journalists were prohibited from visiting Burma. If caught rummaging around for antigovernment views, they and their informants would be arrested, possibly tortured, and made to disappear into the same void into which thousands had gone before them. Worse, the government there would deny that it detained any political prisoners. And there you would be, invisibly imprisoned, forgotten by a world that had secretly concluded you must have had some degree of guilt for getting yourself in such a jam. You see what happened to that American woman in Peru, Phil said.
“Keep the rest of the group ignorant of your activities,” he cautioned Wendy, “and no matter how strongly you feel, don’t engage in activities that would jeopardize the safety of others. If you’re worried, I might be able to rearrange my schedule and come with you. You said there were two tickets, didn’t you?”
Their conversation drifted from lunch into dinner. Phil made suggestive remarks, picking up on the flirtation they had had while housemates, which Wendy never acted on. She thought he looked spongy, like a Gumby toy with bendable limbs and no muscle. She liked hard bodies, tight butts, chiseled jawlines. Bad Boy Scout was her version of sexy. But the more they talked and drank, the more impassioned she became about the plight of other people, and that impassioned sense transformed into sexual passion. She saw Phil as an unsung hero, a freedom fighter, who would one day be as admired as Raoul Wallenberg. With these heroics in mind, she let Phil think that he had seduced her. He was an awkward lover, and when he nibbled her ear and said nasty words, she had to suppress her laughter. Back in her apartment and alone in her own bed, she wrote about the experience in her journal. She was pleased that she had had sex with him. It was her gift to him. He deserved it. But would she do it again? Not a good idea. He might start thinking that the sex was more meaningful than it was. Besides, he had so much hair on his back it was kind of like having sex with a werewolf.
When Wendy departed on the Burma Road trip, it wasn’t Phil who was with her but a lover of one month’s duration, Wyatt Fletcher. He was the adored only child of Dot Fletcher and her late husband, Billy, the Barley King of Mayville, North Dakota, a town whose motto flaunted: “The Way America Is Supposed to Be!” This was a town that fully came together when its native sons fell into trouble, particularly when the trouble was no fault of their own.
Wendy adored Wyatt’s style, for instance, the fact that he could not be coerced or co-opted. If something or someone disagreed with him, he simply “moved on,” as he put it. He was tall, slim-hipped, hairlessly muscled in the chest and back, towheaded and perpetually bronzed as those of Norwegian extraction can be. Wendy believed they were complements of each other. I, however, do not think opposites necessarily are. She was short and curvy, with a mass of curly strawberry-blond hair, skin that easily sunburned, and a sculpted nose, courtesy of a plastic surgeon when she was sixteen. Her mother had homes in San Francisco, Beaver Creek, and Oahu. Wendy assumed Wyatt was from a blue-collar family, since he did not talk much about his parents.
In one sense, Wyatt could be called homeless; his bed was whatever guest room of well-heeled friends he was bumming in for the month. What he did for a living depended entirely on where he was staying. In the winter, he found odd jobs in ski shops and snowboarded in his spare time, and for housing, he shared floor space with his ski patrol friends and a few indoor squirrels. He spent the previous summer bicycling on the fire roads of Mount Tamalpais, accompanied by two Scottish deerhounds that belonged to his ex-girlfriend’s parents, the absentee owners of a countrified wood-shingled mansion in Ross, which was where he house-sat and resided with the hounds, in the quaint pool house with its hammock, billiards table, and oversized rock fireplace. The spring before that, he crewed on a private luxury yacht that took ecotourists around the fjords of Alaska. Several of those well-heeled clients offered him future house-sitting employment, “gigs,” he called them. All in all, he was an easygoing charmer whose predictable rejoinder, “Like, whatever,” to any remark or question was synonymous with his lack of direction and encumbrances in life.
As vacuous as my descriptions may make him sound, I rather liked Wyatt. He had a good heart toward all, whether they were former teachers, girlfriends, or employers. He was not cynical about those of us who were wealthy, nor did he envy or take excessive advantage of us. He remained pleasant and respectful to everyone, even the meter maid who ticketed the car he had borrowed. He always paid the ticket, by the way. I would say he had one of the finest attributes a human being can have, in my opinion, and that is kindness without motives. Of course, his lack of motivation was another matter.
During the bus ride into Lijiang, Wyatt dozed, and Wendy gave everyone who was awake the benefit of her stream-of-consciousness observations. “Omigod, look at those people on the side of the road. They’re smashing rocks, turning them into gravel to pave the road.… Those faces! They look so beaten down. Does the government think people are machines? …” Though Wendy had only arrived in China, she was already sharpening her sensibilities about despotic rule.
LIKE ANY EXUBERANT PUP, Wendy needed to learn “shush.” That’s what Harry Bailley thought. He was sitting across the aisle from her and Wyatt. He had forgotten that he had once possessed the dedication of an activist. In his youth, now some twenty-plus years past, he, too, had wanted desperately to sink his teeth into important causes. He had vowed to resist complacency, abhor apathy, “to make positive, incremental change and leave an imprint after this tenure on earth.”
Years before, a much younger Harry had led the movement to abolish aversive dog-training methods, those that relied on leash-jerking, shock collars, and rubbing the dog’s face in its feces. When he finished veterinary training, he did doctoral studies in the behavioral sciences department at UC Berkeley, investigating pack behavior, how dogs instinctively learned from higher-ups and taught protocols to lower-downs. Dog temperament was not ingrained from birth, he noted. It could be shaped by interaction with other dogs and people and by tasty bribes. Anyone who understood basic Skinnerian principles could tell you that when given positive reinforcement, dogs respond more quickly and consistently to what humans want, and they learn new behaviors more quickly through luring, shaping, and capturing.
“If your doggie has your very expensive alligator purse in his mouth,” Harry would say in his seminars, “offer to trade him a piece of hot dog. Oh goodie, pant-pant, and he’ll drop the purse at your feet. What’s the lesson here? Put your overpriced purses and pumps where Pluto can’t get to them! Then go and get him a smelly old tennis ball. The game is simple: Ball in your hand, treat in his mouth. Even if he’s a basset hound, he’ll turn into an impressive retriever if you do enough trades.”
And through such commonsense advice, Dr. Harry Bailley became the Dog Trainer of Dog Trainers, the founder of the well-regarded International Society of Canine Behaviorists, the inventor of humane training devices (patents pending), the star of The Fido Files, and now the well-qualified owner of my dear, dear Poochini. I’m afraid I never did much training with him, and naughty Poochini had already chewed off the spines of some of Harry’s collection of first-edition books.
“You must inform your clients, gently but firmly,” he often told his disciples at lectures. “Dogs are not people in fur coats. No, indeed. They don’t speak in the future tense. They live in the moment. And unlike you and me, they’ll drink from a toilet. Lucky for us, they are perfect specimens of how operant conditioning and positive reinforcement work, and beautifully so if only we learn how to apply the principles properly. Their human handlers have got to be absolutely objective about what motivates their poochies—so quash their tendency to ascribe Muggum-wuggum’s barking, growling, and counter-surfing to anthropomorphic motives such as pride, revenge, sneakiness, or betrayal. That’s how we speak of our ex-wives, former lovers, and politicians. Remember that Canis lupus familiaris is driven by his own jollies, which are usually harmless to others but can be detrimental to white carpets and Italian shoes. The fact is, dogs mark territory and they masticate. And if dogs resemble Homo erectus in any respect, it is in those traits of the poorly socialized male. Both do what pleases them: they scratch their balls, sleep on the sofa, and sniff any crotch that comes their way. And you, the brilliant dog trainer, must train the owners—that’s right, those barely evolved humans holding those rolled-up newspapers in hand like cavemen’s cudgels—you must train the humans to show the dogs what lucky canines prefer to do other than nip and yowl, or use the leather sofa as a chew toy. Ah! ‘Prefer’ is the operative word, isn’t it? …”
Harry Bailley believed in training people early, before they could inflict any lasting damage upon the wee and impressionable pooches. “Puppy classes!” he would exhort on his television show. “A great equalizer, the perfect socializer, far better than those bore-and-snore book clubs that are all the rage on the other channel. Doggie classes, what a fantastic way for singles to meet. Strong, sensitive men. Woof! Loyal, long-limbed ladies. Woof-woof! And all those sweet, slurpy puppies. Picture their tails wagging—the doggies, you scalawags.” And as his TV clients and their dogs tangoed to “Sit,” “Down,” “Stay,” and “Come,” Harry would ham it up to make everyone feel successful, proud, and continually motivated. “Lure your dog. That’s right, dangle that cheese bit above his nose, now back until he sits. Steady, steady … Yessss! Bingo! Give him the jackpot right away. He’s got it. You’ve got it. Only five point two seconds that time. Good Lord, you two are fast! What a fantastic team!” The dogs panted. The humans, too.
Harry revolutionized dog training. Everyone said so. In the early days, he went so far as to believe his notions of dog behavior could be applied to anything, from toilet training to international politics. He said so in seminars: “Which works faster: beating and humiliating a dictatorship, or luring it to follow a better and more rewarding model? If we call upon the country only to pummel it for being bad, how likely is it to come seeking our humanitarian advice? Isn’t it utterly obvious?” And then Harry would dangle a hundred-dollar bill and bob it up and down so that people in the front row would nod dutifully in agreement. He was rather cocky in those days.
In more recent years, Harry had become less focused on the bad behavior of dog owners and governments and more on his own virility, which he feared might share the fate of endangered species—going, going, gone. He still had his hairline, though it had grayed on the sides—excellent credentials for authority. His physique was still trim; expensive tailored suits helped give him that effect. The damn trouble was, he had an enlarged prostate, the typical benign prostatic hyperplasia that afflicts many men, more annoying than harmful. But by God, Harry would moan, it shouldn’t strangle a man’s best friend before he’s even turned fifty! He was troubled that he had to urinate frequently, and the more he strained, the more he issued forth only driblets, much to his shame at public urinals. He was educated enough to know that the force of urinary flow—or lack thereof—was not a correlation of sexual prowess. Yet he feared that his personal plumbing, which had once spurted those two essential fluids as forcefully as the nozzle on his garden hose, might soon become choked off like a water-saving shower head, and unsatisfying not just to him but to the woman of the moment as well.
He searched the Internet for information that might indicate the prognosis of his sex life should his condition worsen. Ejaculatory backfiring was one worry. Could women really tell? He found a website on prostate problems, with messages from men who shared the same annoying condition. Several posters suggested that daily ejaculations might slow down the hyperplastic activity and keep the pelvic muscles better toned. The message board was also littered with invitations to join porn sites where sufferers could find instant relief for one flat rate. Great, Harry thought, the answer is to masturbate like a kid with a magazine as your one-night stand. No, thank you. He grew more determined to find a lovemate—one would do nicely in this day and age of protected sex and privacy angst—one incredibly wonderful woman he could have and hold, who would understand when parts of him sputtered and gave out, for now or forever. Harry was desperate for love and sex, and for the first time, in that order.
Lovely, sleek Marlena Chu had boarded the bus to Lijiang ahead of him and had taken a window seat, while her daughter, Esmé, raced to the aft of the bus and flopped lengthwise on the long bench. Ye gods, an opportunity. Harry pretended to pass Marlena before reversing to inquire quietly whether she might have any aspirin. Women adore helping creatures in pain; Harry knew that, as well as the fact that ladies always carry remedies for menstrual cramps and headaches. As Marlena began to dig through her purse, he sat down next to her and waited puppylike for his treat.
Although Harry had seen Marlena at many social gatherings in San Francisco, here in this mountain valley in China, she looked positively exotic. Why was that? Why had he not sought her out before? Could it really be that he had overlooked her because she was past a certain dewy-skinned age? But look at her now. Everything about her was smooth and elegant: her hair, her face, her clothes, and especially her movements and gestures. When applying insect repellent, she looked like a goddess. Such grace, such style. She wore a simple black sleeveless sheath and a large colorful pleated scarf, wound and wrapped, so that it resembled a sarong, an origami shawl, a sari, the multiple effects waiting to be undone by a breeze, a whisper of consent in the night.
Naturally, he worried that his friend Moff might have similar thoughts. The two men often did when it came to women. He glanced over at Moff, who was staring right this moment at Heidi as she reached into the overhead rack to pull out a neck pillow from her rucksack. Moff’s son, Rupert, who had been playing with a deck of cards, also stared openly at the young woman’s breasts. Harry had noticed that Moff had given Marlena a number of second glances, his eyes drifting down the length of her figure, lingering on her buttocks. By sitting next to her, Harry hoped this territorial hint would find its way into his friend’s brain, stir some cognition where impulsive behavior and primitive reflexes now resided. Moff could be thickheaded exactly when you didn’t want him to be.
There was that time, Harry recalled, when they were both at a café in Stinson Beach, and Harry had clearly indicated his interest in the café’s owner by saying to Moff: “What gorgeous peepers. Huge hazel irises, fourteen millimeters in diameter, I reckon.” Harry had a fixation about eyes. And Moff had answered, “Really? Hadn’t noticed.” The next day Harry was back at the café and ordered eggs sunny-side up. The woman was friendly, but it was hard to move in more closely; she was like those hand-shy dogs in shelters that had been beaten by previous owners. But he loved the challenge of transforming untrusting creatures into licking maniacs. Take it slowly, he cautioned himself. No sudden moves.
The next day, she wasn’t there. He learned later that Moff had wooed the pants off her by asking if he could drop her somewhere on his refurbished Harley. She rode with him down the coast to Monterey, shedding almost every stitch of clothing and flinging it into the Pacific. After two rapturous months, Moff had to break things off because of “serious differences in expectations.” She responded by spray-painting his motorcycle pink. Harry was more upset than Moff about this report. Blast it! Moff had turned her into a Cerberus hellhound who wanted only to lunge and kill anyone with a penis. He had utterly ruined her as far as future dating was concerned. Adding insult to injury, Moff had also said to him, “Those hazel irises you admired so much? Colored contact lenses, my friend.”
What the devil did women see in Moff? Harry tried to imagine him from a female’s perspective.… He was taller than average (meaning, taller than Harry, who was five-feet-ten), had a passable build, lanky and no flab. But he was a complete washout when it came to proper clothes. His boyhood pal wore the same jungle-safari shirts and baggy short pants no matter what the season or event. And the shoes, well, they were more working-class boots, greased with dirt and flecked with paint. His hands were callused, like an ordinary laborer’s. He wasn’t the sort to buy a woman flowers or speak to her in endearments, not like Harry. And Moff’s hair was a mess, long bushy locks gathered into a ponytail, and a receding hairline accentuating a massive forehead. The latter made him appear super-brainy, which he was, Harry acknowledged, though he also knew that Moff had been kicked out of school for truancy and smoking pot by the time he was sixteen, and thus was forced to become an autodidact.
What knowledge Moff possessed had come from reading, roaming the streets, and took odd jobs in his youth, many of them in dockyards where he did inventory for import-export companies, the rest in backyards in Miami and Los Angeles, where he pruned hedges and cleaned pools. His interest in bamboo began in the 1970s, when he grew walls of it to camouflage his marijuana plants. Keen to make his cannabis as powerful per puff as possible, he devoured books on horticulture, particularly those related to genetic enhancement. Later, bamboo cultivation itself superseded his nefarious grass-growing interests—and why wouldn’t it, when bamboo regenerated so quickly, just like marijuana, but without the legal hassles? And thus he made the 1980s transition to capitalist farmer, shipping containers of “live product,” as he called it, to the lobbies of new office buildings, remodeled airports, and luxury hotels around the world. (Harry didn’t know at the time that Moff and Marlena had quite a few clients in common. Then again, neither did Moff.)
All right, so Moff had an unconventional business, Harry granted him that. And by calling himself a “plantation owner,” Moff made himself highly attractive to women with romantic illusions. They probably thought the plantation was idyllic, like the set for a dinosaur movie, and indeed, it had been used for that purpose on several occasions. But Moff himself had not a whit of romance in his brain. His plantation was intentionally situated near the Laguna Seca Raceway in Salinas, and that was where he took his dates—a factor in a man’s favor if a woman’s idea of a good time was smelling crankcase oil and getting her eardrums blown out by the rpms of Le Mans prototypes. Inexplicably, there was no shortage of women in that category.
Perhaps, Harry thought, he should just be direct with Moff, inform him straightaway that he was interested in Marlena, strongly so. “Old chum, I hope you don’t mind, but you know …” and Harry would indicate with a nod that the lady in favor was Marlena. He imagined Moff would reply with a “Ho-ho,” then clap his hand firmly on Harry’s back, thus sealing their understanding. Marlena, while unaware of the pact, would subconsciously sense the respect these two men shared and never violate it by bedding both of them.
“Have you noticed the trees along the roadside?” Marlena now said to him. Harry peered out the window and in doing so leaned his chest against her arm, his cheek hovering close to hers. The tree trunks were painted white halfway up.
“It’s been that way mile after mile,” she continued, “like a white picket fence.”
My God, Harry thought, her voice was liquid amber, light and mysterious. “An insecticide,” he concluded.
She frowned. “Really? I thought it was so the drivers could see the road at night.”
He backpedaled: “Brilliant deduction. Dual-purpose white. Kills bugs, saves lives.”
“Watching the trees can be hypnotic, though,” she added. “Not great for drivers.”
“Is that why I’m feeling dazed?” He stared into her eyes.
Out of protective instinct, she did a quick deflect. “Probably jet lag.”
He wished he could see her eyes more clearly, but the light was too dim. He could tell how responsive a woman was from the way her pupils reacted. If they pulsed into superdilation, that meant she was open to flirtation, and sex within hours if not minutes was a strong possibility.
Marlena smiled, then yawned. “I can’t wait to fall into my bed.”
“Funny,” Harry quipped, “I’m looking forward to the exact same thing.” He gave his best version of a puppy panting.
She raised one eyebrow, acknowledging the naughty ambiguity of his response. He grinned, and she returned a small smile that was neither rebuke nor acceptance. “The trees,” she ventured again, her voice a little higher, “are they poplars? It’s hard to see the shape of the leaves. Most of them have already fallen off.”
Cheek to cheek, they stared into the darkness, at the blur of whitened trees.
TO HELP MY FRIENDS find the right sensibilities for viewing Lijiang, I included in their itinerary the translated sentiments of a local amateur archivist: “Throughout the last eight centuries, the frequent earthquakes of this region, some measuring to a greatness of 7.0, have rattled the teeth of its citizens, and shaken a few foodstuffs from the cupboards, but not our determination to stay. Because of its beauty, Lijiang is a place no one can ever leave willingly. But if you must go, by peaceful old age or by tourist jet, look down from the sky, and you will notice that Lijiang resembles an ancient ink stone used for centuries to write poetry celebrating its antiquities and self-replenishing virtues.”
This tribute to his hometown was quaint, and perfectly expressed. But of course, most of my friends did not bother to read it.
As I had planned, the group checked into the best hotel Lijiang had to offer. The Glorious View Villa was in the newer, rebuilt section of town, directly across the street from the historic old town with its ramble of lanes, small canals, and aging courtyard homes with their snaky gray tiles and sun-dried mud bricks. The newer hotels of Lijiang were bland but provided one essential tourist attraction: private toilets and baths. The Glorious View had other markings of luxury: a marble-floored lobby lined with uniformed staff, who had received extensive training in greeting customers with happy faces and cheerful phrases: “Welcome!” “You’re welcome!” “You’re most welcome!”
The rooms themselves were small, dull, and dimly lit by energy-saving fluorescent bulbs. The twin beds, sheets, and towels were newer and cleaner than those of any other hotel in the city. The carpets had only a few watermelon stains. A small amount of toilet paper was doled out each day, adequate if one had intestinal fortitude. More was available on request or by theft from the supplies cart in the hall that was monitored by a surveillance camera. The Glorious View Villa was, in fact, the best hotel in the whole of the Naxi Autonomous Region, but for a group used to staying at a chain no worse than the Four Seasons, “best” should have been thought of as a restricted comparative term, not a fixed standard of excellence.
This distinction was lost on Roxanne and Dwight, who tried the knobs on the bedside consoles, the ubiquitous fixture of Chinese hotels. They duly clicked to appropriate notches marked “Lights,” “TV,” “Stereo.” The lights remained lit, the television stayed black, the radio silent. “How can this be a first-class hotel?” Roxanne groused. “This place is the pits.”
Because Lijiang had been described as “historic,” “remote,” and “near the Tibetan foothills,” Roxanne had imagined they would be staying in a nomadic tent – style villa. The floors should have been beaten earth covered with yak hides, and the walls adorned with colorful tapestries. She wanted saddled and snorting camels waiting outside, in lieu of battle-scarred taxis and tens of thousands of tourists, most of whom were Chinese. But it was only Dwight who was snorting. He nuzzled his wife’s breasts, his usual sign that he wished to mate. I use the word “mate” deliberately. They were both desperate to have a baby before it was too late. For this trip, she told him, she had brought along the thermometer, and the last reading indicated it was prime time. She wasn’t in the mood, but this was not about lust.
“I can’t believe they make beds even smaller than twins,” Roxanne said. She pointed disparagingly at the twin bed with its headboard permanently nailed to the wall, a good six feet apart from its match. “Honey, see if you can get us a room with a king-sized bed. If we have to pay more, so be it.” And Dwight dashed down four flights of stairs—no slow elevators for him—in pursuit of this mission. A baby was at stake, his scion, a cross between two future Nobel laureates. By the time he returned to inform his wife that king- and queen-sized beds were deemed imperialist, Roxanne was sonorously asleep.
Across the hall, Harry Bailley, alone in his hotel room, replayed the conversation he had had with Marlena. She was flirting with him, he was damn sure of it. So what should he do to step things up a bit? And what about that midge of a daughter of hers? What a surprise to learn Esme was already twelve. She looked like an eight-year-old, an elfin sylph with her pixie haircut, pink T-shirt, and jeans. She still had a child’s body, not a hint of adolescence on the horizon. But at twelve, the girl could take care of herself and would be less of an obstacle to his gaining Marlena’s solitary affections. In any case, three weeks lay ahead of them, plenty of time to figure out logistics and ways that a prepubescent could amuse herself without the company of her delightful mother. Esme, love, here’s ten dollars. Why don’t you run off into the jungle and give a dollar to each monkey you find?
Harry peered into his wallet. There they were: two condoms. He briefly considered the other attractive single woman in the group, Heidi, younger half sister to Roxanne. She had a certain beguiling quality: big wondering eyes, limber legs, tumbling bunches of blond hair. And those breasts on such a tiny rib cage—they could not possibly be real. (In fact, they were.) Harry, an expert in animal structure, had convinced himself he knew better. They pointed and didn’t sway; he had noticed that many times. What’s more, the nipples sat too high, as if they were doilies floating on balloons. No doubt about it, they were not the bona fide mouthable chew toys. He had slept with a half-dozen women with artificial bosoms, so he should know. His friend Moff had also slept with many of the same type of inflated woman—a few, in fact, were the same, not surprising since the two vacationed at the same Club Meds—and Bamboo Boy swore he could not tell the difference. Tut, tut. That was more telling of Moff, Harry secretly opined. A superior lover, such as he, knew instantly. Naturally endowed women reacted with intense shivers when their nipples were caressed with a feather, an edge of silk, a silky tongue. The reactions of women with implants were a second or two off, or sometimes, to Harry’s horror, entirely absent, especially if their eyes were closed so they could not gauge when to pretend. This left Harry feeling he had fondled a corpse.
Two demerits to Heidi for the implants, Harry decided. Marlena’s breasts were smaller, but they would react lusciously to his touch, and these days, that was far sexier than size. Also in Marlena’s favor, she was relaxed, older than Heidi to be sure, but with a confident maturity he was ready for. Heidi was young, cute, and a little neurotic, a combination that would become in a short time less young, less cute, and more neurotic. She was always so worried about things going wrong—was it clean, was it safe? If she’s on the lookout for problems, Harry thought, she’s going to find them. The best thing for her to do is be on the lookout for good things. It’s how they train people to train dogs. If you’re keen to spot bad behavior that you must punish, you will see only bad behavior. Catch the dog doing something good and reward him, and you’ll start seeing good behavior all the time. God, if only more people knew the principles of dog behavior. Wouldn’t the whole world be great?
Marlena’s child, Esmé, was thinking of dogs as well, one in particular: a tiny Shih Tzu puppy with runny eyes and a cough, which she had seen in the hotel’s beauty parlor late at night. The beauty parlor with its pink lights had odd hours and even odder services. It provided not haircutting or styling but the companionship services of three beauties, who looked not much older than Esmé. One of the girls owned the puppy and said there were others—seven fingers’ worth. This puppy was maybe three months old, she guessed, and a “very good dog.” As she said this, the puppy squatted and let out a stream. It was also for sale cheap, the girl went on without hesitation, only two hundred kwai, about twenty-five American dollars.
“Where’s the mother dog?” Esmé asked.
“Muzzer no here,” the girl replied.
“It’s an orphan?”
And the beauties were quick to assure her, “Fun, fun. Guarantee you money-back.”
Unlike Esmé, who still preferred T-shirts and jeans, the beauties were swathed in tight dresses and perched on chunky-heeled shoes. They carried key chains slung on low-hipped belts, attesting that they owned cars, or at least had privileges to them. In their well-manicured hands, they gripped petite cell phones, always at the ready to offer their services. Harry had received just such an offer a half-hour after checking in. A voice cooed in a Texas twang and Chinese tones: “Hello, honey, you lonesome tonight?” And though Harry was tempted, he was also a veterinarian who was well aware of the precise opportunistic methods by which parasites and deadly viruses travel. Down, boy. Good boy.
Bennie Trueba y Cela had received a similar call and had laughed uproariously. “Sweetie, you’ve got the wrong number,” he said. He had the girth and robustness of his Texan mother, and the sensual lips and extravagant gestures of his Spanish father, who died a month after Bennie had announced to him by letter that he was gay. This sent Bennie to a psychiatrist to examine his problems with other people’s anger, disappointment, and criticism. “My father’s death was like a complete rejection.” He said some variation of this at almost every session, making it sound each time as if it were a sudden epiphany.
Bennie’s room at the Glorious View Villa was the one that would have been mine, across from Vera’s at the end of the hall. The hotel liked to please tour leaders and gave them rooms with a mountain view, that of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Its numerous jagged peaks did indeed recall a sleeping dragon with a ridged back. When I was last here and was told I had a mountain-view room, I was suspicious of what this meant, for I have been in hotels that claimed to have panoramas but had only the poetic hint of one. And on one unpleasant occasion, I snapped back the curtain to see that the view was indeed that of a mountain, only it was placed right against the window, the dark rock obscuring all light and emitting the dank smell of a cave.
Bennie took a deep breath and inhaled inspiration from the mountain. The group had originally hoped to secure Dr. Bill Wu as tour leader, and a wise choice that would have been. He was a dear friend from the days when he and I were teaching at Mills College. But he was busy leading another group on an intensive study of the thousand Buddha carvings of the Dunhuang caves. Bennie had a few years of docent experience, but unlike me, he had never been to Burma or China and knew little about either country or its art. He had cried with gratitude when told after my funeral that he had been chosen the new leader. (That was after several other possibilities had been ruled out.) Thus appointed, he vowed to help in any way he could—by organizing luggage collection for transport, confirming airline reservations and passport needs, doing the hotel check-ins, arranging matters with the local guides provided by China’s and Burma’s offices of tourism, anything that would ensure that everyone had a marvelous, first-class adventure.
Pleasing people was his greatest joy, he liked to say. Unfortunately, he often promised what was humanly impossible, and thus made himself the target of people’s ire when reality replaced intention. It was that way with his business. He was a graphic artist, and his lover, Timothy, was an art director. Bennie pledged impossibly fast turnarounds, special design elements and paper stock upgrades thrown in for free, a budget twenty percent lower than what any other firm had submitted, which later grew to be twenty-five percent higher than anyone else’s. (He had inherited this technique of estimates and overruns from his father, who was a building contractor.) There were always unavoidable, perfectly legitimate reasons for the overruns, of course, and in the end he endeared himself to the clients, for they were always ecstatic with the final product. He was, in fact, a very talented designer. But by going away to China and Burma for three weeks, he risked missing his deadlines—again.
On the other hand, the current project was for the Asian Art Museum, and Bennie believed that they, of all people, would understand. He even convinced himself that I, dearly departed Bibi, was sending him signs to lead the tour in my permanent absence. For instance, he found a message in a fortune cookie: “Go where your heart leads you.” A book on Burma popped into his hands when he was in a bookstore. That same day, while purging his files, he happened upon an old invitation to a fund-raiser for the Asian, for which I was listed as a patron and he as having provided a donation in kind. I assure you, I was incapable of sending any such billets-doux. And had I been, I would have been far less subtle. I would have advised Bennie to stay home.
To his credit, Bennie did conscientiously study the itinerary I had prepared. Before the departure date, he had called the various tourism offices in China and Burma to confirm that all arrangements were still locked in. He was so obsessed with making sure everything was right that he ate cashews constantly to assuage his gnawing anxiety. He later switched to pistachios and sunflower seeds, since shelling them required slowing down his consumption. Nevertheless, he gained several pounds, which meant his goal to shed twenty before the trip had to be increased to “a little more.” Going to Burma would aid in that direction, he believed. With the heat and all the running around he would have to do, the fat would melt away like glaciers transported to the Gobi.
As he eased into bed that first night in Lijiang, he was confident that all plans would run as smoothly as the second hand on his Rolex. The bed seemed awfully hard, but he would sleep well, no doubt about that. On the plane, he had been forced to stay awake because there were no electrical outlets for powering up the continuous positive air pressure machine he used for his obstructive sleep apnea. He had feared he would fall asleep and snore loudly or, worse, stop breathing while flying at thirty-nine thousand feet over the Pacific. With transfers in Seoul, Bangkok, and Kunming, he had gone ages without sleep, and when the plane touched down in Lijiang, he was hallucinating that he was back at the San Francisco airport and late for his departure.
Now that he was safe and sound in the hotel, he slipped the sleep mask over his face, adjusted the CPAP machine to the high-altitude setting, cranked the pressure up to fifteen, then lay back with his head in a horseshoe-shaped neck brace. He silently thanked me for my wisdom in suggesting that the group sleep in late the first morning, then leisurely rise to enjoy “A Taste of Winter Delicacies” at a picturesque local restaurant. I had chosen the menu myself: sautéed ferns, pine needles in a spicy sauce, north-wind mushrooms with their tiny caps, cow-liver mushrooms, large and smooth black, oh, and best of all, a lovely braised white reed whose texture is somewhere between asparagus and endive. Bennie was happy to transition from sleep to food.
Dwight had other ideas. At seven a.m., he managed to roust Roxanne and Heidi, as well as the young and the restless, Rupert, Esmé, Wyatt, and Wendy. They went jogging through the old town, where they risked ankle wrenches while dodging Tibetan spaniels and Pekingese lying on the uneven stone-paved lanes. Rupert and Esmé zoomed past Dwight. Rupert had the same coloring and features of the local kids, Dwight noticed. I would say, however, that Rupert’s height and his earrings, two on the upper part of one ear, were glaring signs that he was not from these parts. But Esmé could easily have passed for many a child in Lijiang. The majority of the inhabitants were the result of centuries of bedtime mergers among Han Chinese, a dozen Yunnan tribes, and over the ages, British opportunists, European explorers, passing nomads, and fleeing Jews. The populace was an unplanned and lovely mix, no two ever the same, just like art.
It was a thrilling, vertiginous run—the smell of morning fires, steaming cauldrons, and fire-snapping grills, the awesome snowy peaks. “Coming up behind you,” they would shout, and then pass successive clusters of Naxi women with their crisscross halters to which were secured ninety-pound loads of pine needles pressing on their backs.
Our early-morning risers spent forty-five minutes aerobically seizing their lungs at an altitude of seven thousand eight hundred seventy-four feet and a temperature of forty-eight degrees, then chanced upon the perfect place to breakfast. What luck: there they were, sitting among the locals on long benches, gulping down with proletarian gusto bowls of thick spicy noodles and chives, a breakfast that well suited them, since their confused stomachs had been crying that it was time for a flavorful dinner and not a bland breakfast.
At nine, the nip in the air was gone, and when the hale and hearty returned to the hotel, they were ready for more adventures. They rang up the others, gurgling over what delights were to be seen while running about in the fresh alpine air as opposed to dozing in a dreary room. Soon everyone was in the lobby, so that they could meet up with the local guide and be on their way.
Bennie announced that there had been a slight change in plans. He quickly assured them that it was all for the better. He had had a phone call earlier that morning from a man who told him that their guide from yesterday, Mr. Qin, had experienced an unavoidable problem. (The problem was that another tour leader, who knew of Qin’s merits, had, with a few dollars pushed into helpful hands, pirated him away.) Bennie assumed the original guide or a member of his family had taken ill. The voice at the other end of the line said Bennie could choose from one of two available guides. One was an older man born and raised in this province and an expert on every square inch of the area, from the tops of the highest mountains to the rocks down below. Besides knowing English and Mandarin, he could speak several minority dialects, including Bai, his native tongue. He was excellent, energetic and happy, and everyone was pleased with his services, in spite of “his recent loss.”
“What loss?” Bennie had asked.
“His arm,” the voice on the phone said. “He misses his arm.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. What about the other one?” Bennie asked.
“That arm no problem.”
“I mean the other guide.”
The voice described a woman, younger than the man, but not too young. She had no losses. Formerly, she was from the big city, Chengdu, and was reassigned to here. Formerly, she was a teacher. Because she was new to the area, she was not as experienced as the older man, but she had studied intensively, so she was also very good.
“What kind of teacher?” Bennie asked.
“English,” came the answer.
“So that’s who I picked,” Bennie explained to the group. “I could tell they were trying to stick me with this old guy that nobody wanted. But I managed to get the English teacher, who sounded more hip and up-to-date on things.”
A minute later, the former English teacher walked in. She wore oversized glasses with lenses so shiny that it was hard to see her eyes. Her hair had undergone a tragic experiment; her sister-in-law, who hoped to work in a beauty salon one day, had subjected her to a permanent, and no matter how much she tried to tame the tightened curls, her hair was a battle of tufts that all jutted out in opposing directions. She wore a drab blue top with wide lapels and white buttons, complemented by matching unattractive slacks. It was never my nature to judge people solely on appearances, but I had a bad feeling.
She stepped forward timidly and in a barely audible voice said, “So pleasing meet you in Lijiang.” This was how the group met the stiff and reticent Miss Rong, a name that everyone pronounced “wrong” from start to end.
If I could have stopped this fiasco by jumping back into the living, I would have done so. Miss Rong was not local to the area, not even to Yunnan Province. She spoke no minority dialects, had no training in art and culture. The one-armed man, by the way, was an excellent guide, the most knowledgeable of all the guides. But Miss Rong was at the bottom of a very deep barrel. She was not able to talk about the ravishing mountain meadow scenery or give insight into the history of Lijiang, its two ancient families, the customs of the Naxi or any of the other tribes in the area. She had memorized information and stated the number of square kilometers, the population, the percentage of economic growth in key areas of industry and agriculture. I had to hear it only once. “The old city,” she said in a heavy accent and with the stiffness of recitation, “is protect by UNESCO. You know UNESCO. For that reason, Lijiang will stay ancient with economic developing, and because therefore, you can inspect the authentic historical site with special law for snacks selling, tailor, barber, and tourist traps.”
“So what’s up for today?” Bennie asked in a nervously cheerful tone. He hoped she would improve once she loosened up. Miss Rong began to outline the day’s activities. The more she talked, the worse her English seemed to be. Everyone had a hard time understanding her. Bennie pretended he did not. A discussion ensued among my friends, led by Dwight, about changing the plans a bit, including perhaps a bike trip the next day instead of the temple visit, and a hike rather than the tour of the UNESCO site. Miss Rong looked blank-faced as English words ran past her ears. “And we should cancel this ‘Taste of Winter Delicacies,’” Dwight said. “I don’t want to sit in a tourist restaurant and eat what all the tourists eat.” He went on to brag about the native cuisine they had eaten that morning, how they sat among the locals, and it was completely spontaneous, not a tourist activity, but a real experience. The noodle soup was also delicious. My friends made affirmative responses. “Sounds great.”
Dwight turned to the speechless Miss Rong and let spew a rapid assortment of words she could not follow: “… authentic … no buffet … no touristy restaurant … no strict schedule.” He was very stern, she sensed, had so many prohibitions to not do this, not do that. But what? What he did not want was not entirely clear. The tongue-tied Miss Rong could answer only, “This no problem.”
Bennie also had no objections to the suggested changes. He had wanted to please and was mortified that he had instead chosen a guide who was nearly unintelligible. “Terrific. Let’s do it!” he said of the new plan. He secretly mourned not eating winter delicacies. Sautéed ferns—lost to spontaneity, alas.
A further powwow led to the consensus that they should set forth immediately on a bus ride to Stone Bell Mountain, where they might do some hiking. They gathered what they needed for the day, which for everyone except Heidi was hardly more than what they wore, some camera gear, journal books, and sketch pads. Soon they boarded the bus and were on their way, hooting and cheering, “To Stone Bell Mountain,” as Roxanne took a group shot with her camcorder. This would be their habit from now on: to change plans and announce their new fate as if it were a better course.
Two hours into the bus ride, several people yelled that they had seen a roadside restaurant with an authentic local look about it. The bus pulled into a dusty lot in front of a one-room hovel. Being famished, Bennie declared this an oasis befitting a possible write-up in Travel & Leisure. The quaint stools and low table with its antique plastic tablecloth had transformed into an al fresco mirage … The group stepped off the bus, shed their jackets, and stretched. The air was warm. Moff and Rupert headed for the nearest clump of trees. The others sat at the tables. Bennie took out a sketch pad, Wendy had her soft leather journal with its nearly pristine lined pages, and Roxanne looked through the viewfinder of her omnipresent digital camcorder. What luck that they had come upon this rustic eatery (which even the locals eschewed with authentic disdain). What luck for the cook (promoted to “chef” by Wendy) and his waitress wife. They had not seen a hapless customer in three days.
“What shall we order?” Bennie asked the group.
“No dog!” cried Esmé.
“How about snake?” joked Rupert.
“You don’t suppose they eat cats?” Heidi added, and shuddered at the thought.
Miss Rong conveyed this message in Mandarin to the chef: “They don’t wish to eat dog, but want to know if you serve the famous Yunnan dish Dragon Meets Lion.” The cook sadly informed her they had had no deliveries of fresh snake or cat recently. But his wife interjected they would gladly serve their finest. That turned out to be a bit of something that resembled pork, and might have been chicken, rice twice reheated, and all of it invisibly sprinkled with cockroach legs coated with little microbes that feed off human intestinal lining. This plat du jour was washed down with plentiful bottles of warm beer and cola.
Harry Bailley drank three local ales and ate nothing. Dear friend that he is, I know he is quite the fussy eater, who prefers Languedoc with this peasant dish, Sancerre with that, and it should be this vintage, served at that temperature. Beer was already a concession for him, let alone a lukewarm bottle that was not Guinness stout. Having drunk three, he was in urgent need of a loo. He was slightly inebriated, and because the restroom was unlit, he nearly fell into the abyss. Catching himself, he then observed both visually and viscerally the level of hygiene practiced in this restaurant. Good God, that hole in the floor that passed as a toilet was only a suggested target. It was also evident that quite a number of deathly ill people with bloody bowel disorders had found refuge there. Furthermore, toilet paper was not to be found, nor water with which to wash one’s hands. Abominable! Thank God he had not partaken of the fare.
Heidi also did not indulge in the roadside picnic. She had eaten the protein-rich soy bar she carried in her daypack, where she also stored a bottle of water, along with the heating coil she had used that morning to disinfect the water. In the same pouch she had two mini-bottles of antibacterial disinfectant, a half-dozen alcohol wipes, a doctor-prescribed needle and syringe in case she was in a head-on collision and needed an operation, her own nonporous eating utensils, a pack of moistened towelettes, chewable antacid tablets for coating the stomach before and after eating (this, she had read, could ward off as much as ninety-eight percent of the common nasties that cause travelers’ diarrhea), a plastic funnel with a six-inch retractable tube for urinating while standing, nonlatex gloves for handling the funnel, an epinephrine injection pen in case she went into anaphylactic shock from an exotic insect bite, extra nine-volt batteries for the portable air sanitizer she wore around her neck, lithium batteries for the anti-nausea device worn on her wrist, as well as Malarone tablets for preventing malaria, anti-inflammatories, and a prescription bottle of antibiotic for bacterial gastrointestinal diseases. More preventatives and remedies, including a bag of intravenous fluid, were in her suitcase back at the hotel.
Heidi and Harry were thus spared from dysentery this time, she by anxiety, and he by snobbery. From years of experience, the bus driver, Xiao Fei, who was called “Mr. Fred” for American convenience, had an intestinal tract and immune system conditioned to resist infection. Some in our group, by virtue of their inherited robustness in warding off disease, would overcome the invaders before any symptoms manifested. As for the others, the dysentery consequences of this Shigella bacillus culinary adventure would not be felt for another few days. But the bacteria had already begun their descent into foreign guts, and would wend their ways into intestinal tracts and into bowels. The bus would take a similarly tortuous, winding route along the Burma Road, where soon the forces of fate and Shigella would meet up with them.
Lateness, I would have reminded my friends, is one of the deadly sins on a group tour, not to be tolerated, and punishable by the fates in any number of unforgiving ways. But this rule and warning were not established early on, and after that mistake of a lunch, my friends spent an additional twenty minutes locating everyone so they could board the bus.
Rupert had taken off down the road to check out the rock-climbing possibilities, and because he was fifteen and utterly unable to discern the difference between five minutes and fifty, not to mention between private and public property, he had managed to climb a stone wall and trespass into a courtyard housing six hens and a disheveled rooster. Roxanne was capturing arty footage with her camcorder of Dwight walking down a deserted road. Wendy had located some photogenic children who belonged to the sister of the chef’s wife, and she busied herself taking pictures with a very expensive Nikon while Wyatt made faces to make the kids laugh. Bennie was adding shading to the sketch he had made of this local Chinese bistro, a dilapidated building at a crossroads that appeared to lead to nowhere. Mr. Fred, the bus driver, had wandered across the road to smoke a cigarette. He would have stayed closer to the bus, but Vera, who wanted to board, had asked with exaggerated waves of her hands that he not contaminate the air around her. Miss Rong was in the front seat, studying a book of English phrases. Moff also got on the bus, and lay down at the back for a five-minute nap. Heidi boarded and applied a disinfectant to her hands, then put some on a tissue and wiped down the armrest and grab bar in front of her. Marlena and Esmé were doing their best to use the latrine with its perilous pit. Bad as it was, they preferred privacy to open-air cleanliness. Harry had gone searching for a better loo and in doing so saw a pair of interesting red-breasted birds with twitchy eyes.
This tendency for people to wander off was already becoming a habit, with Rupert and Harry vying for first place in being the most dilatory. When everyone had finally been rounded up, Miss Rong counted heads: the black lady, the plump man, the tall man with horsetail hair, the kissing girl, the man who drank too many beers, those three with baseball caps, another two with sun hats, and so on, until she reached eleven and had to start over again. At last, she found the requisite twelve. She gave the signal to the bus driver with a triumphant “Zou ba!” and off they went.
The bus’s transmission and shock absorbers were put to the test as Mr. Fred lurched into oncoming traffic and in Russian-roulette fashion passed slightly slower vehicles on the uneven road. The combination of bad suspension and frightful suspense was ideal for inducing motion sickness in almost everyone. Heidi felt no queasiness whatsoever, thanks to her anti-nausea wrist device. And Rupert was also unaffected and was even able to read from a black-covered paperback, Stephen King’s Misery, which held as its ignominious bookmark a page of the notes I had worked on so laboriously.
Stone Bell Temple lay ahead. I had hoped my friends might learn about the importance of its holy grottoes and their carvings, many created in the Song and Tang dynasties, with the more recent ones completed in the Ming, several hundred years in the past. By seeing a medley of ancient Nanzhao, Bai, Dai, and Tibetan images, they might have sensed how streams of minority tribes’ religions had joined the dominant—and often domineering—Chinese river of thought. The Han Chinese have always been good at absorbing motley beliefs yet maintaining their own as paramount. Even the Mongols and Manchus, who had conquered and ruled them since the thirteenth century, had assimilated Chinese ways and had virtually become Chinese themselves. Think about this, I would have said to my charges: as we go into this temple, think about the influences of tribes, invaders, and rulers upon one another. You see remnants of their effects in both religion and art, in essence those areas that are expressions of the spirit.
The bus rumbled on. The tribe they were about to meet was the Bai, and my twelve friends would have a profound effect on them, and vice versa.
“Hey, Dad,” Rupert called out, holding up the page from my notes, “get this.” He began to read what I had written: “‘One of the shrines is most aptly named the Grotto of Female Genitalia.’” Rupert snickered through his nose in an unattractive way and neglected to read further, where I had written the following: “Many tribes in this region believe that creation begins from the womb of darkness and death. Thus, there is a profound reverence for grottoes. This particular grotto is unspectacular but delightful, and contains a rather plain and small shrine, about twenty inches in width and twenty-four in height, and carved simply in the shape of a vulva surrounded by labia onto which have been inscribed tributes over the centuries to fertility. The grotto symbolizes fertility, and fertility is fervently worshipped in China, for to lack fertility is to lose one’s family line, and a family without heirs is consigned to oblivion, darkness, and the permanence of death.”
No, sad to say, my queasy friends did not read this, although their imaginations had become quite fertile. The Grotto of Female Genitalia: What could such a curiously named place look like? Collectively, the women envisioned a primordial cave emanating warmth, mystery, comfort, safety, and innate beauty. The men pictured a cleft in the mountain with overgrown bushes behind which was a tiny entrance that led into a moist cave, and Bennie’s imagination further embellished is as dark, slimy, and filled with screeching bats.
Before they reached their destination, however, the travelers saw large domed ovens on the left side of the road, smoke spewing from their vents. What were they baking? Miss Rong made rectangular shapes with her hands, and pointed to homes and walls. Loaves of bread? Oh, bricks and tiles! Marlena suggested a photo stop, Wendy agreed, and Vera, ignoring the groans of the men, who believed a shopping spree was about to take place, raised her palm to order the bus driver to pull over.
Esmé was the first to see the water buffalo on the right side of the road. It appeared to be stuck, with mud up to its belly. Why was it blindfolded? And why were those men whipping it? Wendy began scribbling madly in her journal. Bennie sketched a quick impression.
Miss Rong happily explained that this was how the mud was “smashed” so it would be soft enough to place in the molds. And the buffalo’s eyes were covered so the beast did not know it was going in circles. All twelve travelers were now transfixed as the buffalo plowed its wretched Sisyphean route. ’Round and ’round he stumbled and lurched, haphazardly and endlessly, his great body heaving to take another breath, his nostrils flaring with fright as the whip came down across his hindquarters.
“Man, that is one miserable existence,” Roxanne said. The others echoed similar sentiments.
Esmé was close to tears. “Make them stop.”
Miss Rong tried to ease their discomfort. “This is karma,” she tried to explain in her rudimentary English. “Past life this buffalo must be doing bad things. Now suffer, so next life get better.…” What she was trying to say was this: Your situation and form in life are already determined before you are born. If you are a buffalo suffering in mud, you must have committed wrongs upon others in a previous existence, and thus, you deserve this particular reincarnation. Perhaps this buffalo was once a man who killed an innocent person. Maybe he was a thief. By suffering now, he would earn a much cushier reincarnation in the next go-round. It’s an accepted way of thinking in China, a pragmatic way of viewing all the misfortunes of the world. You cannot change a buffalo into a man. And if a buffalo does not mash the mud, who else would do this job?
Miss Rong blithely continued her philosophical talk: “So family must having a house, house must having bricks, buffalo must having smash mud. Do not be sad, this the way of life.…” She enjoyed the opportunity to inform her charges of Buddhist ideas. She had heard that many Americans, especially those who travel to China, love Buddhism. She did not realize that the Buddhism the Americans before her loved was Zen-like, a form of not-thinking, not-moving, and not-eating anything living, like buffaloes. This blank-minded Buddhism was practiced by well-to-do people in San Francisco and Marin County, who bought organic-buckwheat pillows for sitting on the floor, who paid experts to teach them to empty their minds of the noise of life. This was quite different from the buffalo-torture and bad-karma Buddhism found in China. Miss Rong also did not realize that most Americans, especially those with pets, have great sympathy for animals in misery, often more so than for miserable humans. Animals, with their inability to speak for themselves, the pet lovers believe, possess innocence and moral purity. They do not deserve cruelty.
If only Miss Rong could have posed the situation in better English and with more comprehensible cases of comparison: For a man who rapes and murders little girls, what is a satisfactory punishment? Should he not be turned into a beast of burden who lives in mud and is whipped every waking hour so that he might learn what suffering is and thus become a better being in his next incarnation? Or should the villain be paraded about town to the jeers of a crowd, as they do in some countries, placed in a burlap bag, tossed over a cliff, and then dismembered so that he will have to walk sans penis in hell? On the other hand, as has been described in both Christian and Chinese hells, would it be more just if he were consigned to a vat of oil, one that boils eternally and in which each moment is as unbearable as the first dip of the toe, so that his horror is endless, without any hope whatsoever of redeeming himself? Given my present state, I weighed which of these various hells was least horrific and thus most appealing, and I hoped that my current state of limbo would not lead to my learning which was true. I hoped I would not come back as a mudsmashing water buffalo.
Thus saddened by this tour of Buffalo Torture, the travelers continued their bus journey to the grottoes. As the road climbed into the mountains, Marlena and Harry were interested in taking note of the scenery. It was an excuse to lean their faces together and make small talk. “Those are poplars, I believe.…” “Look, eucalyptus.” “What are those?”
Moff, who was sitting behind them, answered in a bored voice: “Willows.”
“Are you sure?” Harry said. “They don’t look it.”
“Not all willows are the grand weeping variety.”
He was right. These willows were a scrubby, fast-growing kind that can be cut back often for kindling. Higher up, the willows gave way to long-needled pines, and trudging along the road was a phalanx of Naxi women collecting the fallen needles.
“What do they use those for?” Marlena called out to Miss Rong.
Miss Rong struggled to say it was for the animals. Everyone assumed she meant that the animals ate the needles, which is not so. In the winter, the animals nest in the needles to stay warm, and in the spring, the Naxi women use the manure-soiled needles as fertilizer when they plant the new crops. With a limited diversity of life, there is greater diversity of purpose.
“Where are the men?” Wendy demanded to know. “Why aren’t they out there breaking their backs?”
“Yes, very lazy,” Miss Rong joked. Then she added, “They play outside, do poetry.” She was partly right. The rest she knew but didn’t know how to verbalize clearly, so I will translate: In China, there is a saying made popular after the revolution: Women hold up half the sky. In the Naxi Autonomous Region, women have always held up the whole sky. It is a matriarchal society, where the females do the work, handle the money, own the houses, and raise the children. The men, meanwhile, ride on the backs of shooting stars, so to speak. They are bachelors, boyfriends, and uncles, roaming from bed to bed at night, not knowing which children they have fathered. They take the animals out to graze early in the morning, they bring them back at dusk. In the mountain pastures, they roll their cigarettes and smoke, and when they call the animals, they lure them with love songs. They sing at the top of their lungs, which extract oxygen much more efficiently than those of most Americans. So Miss Rong was correct in what little she said. The men do poetry. To hear a song sung in the mountains is always poetry.
At the entrance to the temple park, the bus stopped and my friends jumped out for camcorder documentation of their arrival. They gathered behind a sign, “Sincerely Welcoming you to Famous Grottoe of Female Genitalia.” Harry had his arm around Marlena’s waist. The others arranged themselves in various positions according to height. Roxanne held the camcorder. Meanwhile, Miss Rong had gone to pay the park entry fee. She stepped up to an old man sitting in a tollbooth the size of an upright coffin. He spoke to Miss Rong in the Bai dialect that was common in that region, telling her, “Hey, be careful today. We may get a thundershower any minute, so stay off the high ridge. Oh, and one other important matter—please note, the foreigners should avoid going to the main grottoes between the hours of two-thirty and three-thirty, because a television crew from CCTV will be filming a documentary there. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
Miss Rong, who was ashamed to let both the man and her charges know she did not understand Bai, nodded briskly in return. She believed he was just reminding her that as an official tour guide she was required to take her tourists to the state-approved souvenir store. Each time she had been asked to be a substitute tour guide, the main office had reminded her of this as her foremost duty.
Before embarking on the trail, several of our group made a visit to the restrooms, two gender-assigned concrete pavilions with an open trough through which a paltry stream of water constantly ran, failing, however, to wash away the deposits. Heidi donned a face mask before entering, turned on her air purifier, and retrieved from her pack various germ-fighting supplies. The other women crouched and buried their faces in their sleeves, trying not to retch. In the men’s latrine, Moff let out a gusher strong enough to jet-spray gum off a sidewalk, while Harry, standing at the other end of the trough, focused his mind and squeezed his muscles—lats, abs, quads, and glutes—and out came a meager trickle. Though he had not attained relief, he zipped up quickly, not wanting to prolong his humiliation.
Let me add here that I am most emphatically not in the habit of watching or talking about people’s private business. I also abhor scatological humor and salacious gossip. But these are things I knew with these Buddha-like talents I now possessed, the Celestial Eye, the Celestial Ear, the Mind of Others. Furthermore, I report these intimate details that are salient only so that you might better judge later what occurred and why. Just remember: Throughout history, many a world leader was injudiciously influenced by his malfunctioning bladder, bowels, and other private parts. Didn’t Napoleon lose at Waterloo because he couldn’t sit in a saddle, on account of hemorrhoids?
At one o’clock, the eager travelers began their downward trek into the canyon that was the heart of Stone Bell Mountain. They were slightly disoriented from jet lag, the bouncy bus ride, and retreating motion sickness. Miss Rong’s version of English did not help matters. She was trying to recall which English words meant “east,” “west,” “north,” and “south,” and eventually she translated her directions thus: “Descend shady side, see temple grotto, ascend sunny side up, return the bus.” Of course, such terms are relative to the time of day. In fact, they rely entirely on the assumption that sunny and shady remain constant even after the sun has been completely obliterated by storm clouds as black as the tumbling seas.
To those who might visit the Lijiang region one day, let me assure you that winter is an excellent time for travel. It is the dry season. Even in late December, the days are usually warm and pleasant, while the nights are brisk but easily managed with a sweater or light pullover, unless, of course, you are someone like Heidi, who prefers layers—a down vest with Gore-Tex waterproofing, microfleece leggings, a 30 SPF shirt pretreated with mosquito repellent, a heat-retaining cap with visor, and a two-ounce Space blanket—in other words, a compact arsenal of techno-wear to enable her to handle every impossibility. I am not poking fun at Heidi, for as it turned out, she was the only one who was suitably prepared for mosquitoes with voracious appetites for Americans, and for skies that demonstrated with dramatic effect what might occur during a surprise flash flood.
When the rain first began to fall, soft as tears, our travelers had long since dispersed themselves like sheep on a sparse range. Each had gone off to stake his or her own unique experience. Roxanne had led the way uphill for Dwight and Heidi. Wyatt and Wendy sprinted down the shadier paths for a bit of smooching and pawing. Marlena and Esmé accepted Harry’s invitation to search for wildlife and the fabled pine with limbs as gnarled as an old man’s arthritic joints. Bennie and Vera wandered downward, taking the path of least resistance gravity-wise as they passionately discussed the building of the new Asian Art Museum and the various ways to blend innovation with tradition. Moff and Rupert jogged away, the younger lad soon being two turns ahead of his father, at which point he was seized with a desire to hoist his limber self up a steep face of rock, at the top of which was a grotto surrounded by a stone relief. He scrambled across scree, stepped over a low roped fence, and began to climb. At the bottom was a sign in Chinese that read: “Forbidden to Enter! Danger!”
Soon water was filling the rocky crevices of the canyon, and as the rain came down more ferociously, a distinctive wind-whirring and rock-tocking sound reverberated. It was like an orchestra of stone bells, the Chinese version of an aeolian harp. To hear it, you would think this was how the mountain had received its name; but in fact, the name came from a stony formation at the top that resembles a bell. It’s quite prosaic. In any case, the sounds rang loud as a bell, loud enough to dampen the shouts of people to one another.
“Rupert!” Moff cried out. No answer.
“Which way?” Marlena shouted to Harry, who was peering up and then down the path. Her words fell to the floor of the canyon, unheard along with the cries of ten thousand others lost over the ages.
In short order, the paths had become too tricky to traverse. So everyone did what was most natural, what people over the last twelve centuries have done, and sought refuge in one of the sixteen grottoes and various temples that pocked the sides of Stone Bell Mountain.
Marlena, Esmé, and Harry were closest to the main temple grounds, whose original building, now gone, was constructed during the Nanzhao Kingdom, around the ninth century. The decorative pillars and tile roofs, which Harry could make out through the rainy haze, were from a remodeling job done during the Ching dynasty, only a hundred or so years old and repainted in more recent years after its near destruction during the Cultural Revolution. The three rain-soaked visitors scrambled up the zigzag path, and when they arrived at one of the temple buildings above a courtyard, they were stunned by what they saw from ancient times. As the rain poured down the awnings, it created a misty curtain, a scrim behind which stood a pretty, young woman in turbaned headdress and bright pink jacket singing to a young man who accompanied her on a two-stringed an erhu, which had the versatility to sound like anything from a young woman moaning in love to a horse shrilling in fright. Our travelers stepped closer, but the singing couple remained oblivious of the intruders.
“Are they real?” Esmé asked.
Marlena said nothing. They must be ghosts stuck in time, forever reliving one moment that was dear to them, she thought.
The woman’s singing rose, her voice warbling in unearthly surges. The man began to sing in response. Back and forth they went, with an incredible athleticism in their trilling vibrato. The man walked closer to the pretty woman, and at the end, she leaned into his chest, falling back like a viola returning to its protective case, and allowed him to wrap her in his arms.
“Hullo!” a female voice suddenly called out.
When Harry, Marlena, and Esmé turned, they saw a woman in a pink business suit standing under the eaves of another building, waving frantically. Behind her were two men, one with a video camera and the other holding a boom. They were, of course, the television crew that the old fellow at the entrance booth had mentioned in his instructions, the same ones that Miss Rong had failed to understand.
“Omigod! Are we in your way?” Marlena shouted back. “We are so sorry. We had no idea—”
The woman and her crew ducked from under their awning and ran toward them. The two costumed singers also came over, the man now smoking a cigarette.
“No problem, no worries,” the woman said affably. “You are from UK? All three?”
“America, USA, all three,” Harry answered. He pointed to Marlena, Esmé, then himself. “San Francisco.”
“Very nice,” the woman said. She translated for her crew and the singers. They nodded and talked among themselves, which worried Marlena. She, who had been raised in a Shanghainese family, understood about as much Mandarin as Miss Rong understood English, and it sounded to her as if the crew was upset that they had botched their shoot. Eventually, the pink-garbed woman spoke to them again in English. “We are documentary making for this region, from national television program, for awareness of Bai minority culture, as well the scenic beauty in Stone Bell Mountain, to show appreciating the tourists around the world. We like to ask you question. Is okay?”
Harry traded laughs with Marlena. “Sure. Absolutely delighted.”
The cameraman positioned himself and motioned for Harry and Marlena to step more to the left and closer to the woman in pink. The soundman lofted the boom above them. Words were exchanged in Chinese, and the filming began with the woman speaking rapidly in Beijing-perfect Mandarin: “As you can see, Stone Bell Temple, with its rich culture, ancient historical grottoes, and fascinating landscape, deserves its world-renowned reputation. Tourists from many countries come, drawn by the enjoyable scenery and the educational prospects. These same tourists have a choice of visiting Paris, Rome, London, or Niagara Falls—but here, in beautiful Stone Bell Mountain, they have made their choice. Let us meet two of them, a prosperous family from San Francisco in America.”
She switched to English: “Sir, lady, please to tell us what you think this place, Stone Bell Temple and Mountain.”
“It’s beautiful here,” Marlena said, “even in the rain.” She did not know whether to look at the camera or at the woman in pink, so she did both, glancing back and forth, which gave her a furtive appearance.
Harry assumed his television posture, a more erect back, chest forward, a steady and honest gaze at the camera: “This place is truly spectacular.” He gestured to an elaborately painted beam. “Absolutely charming. We don’t have anything like it back home. Nothing quite this old or, for that matter, so … so vibrant, so vibrantly red. The aesthetic is utterly, utterly Chinese, absolutely historical. Oh, and we can hardly wait to see the magnificent grottoes we’ve heard so much about, the female one.” He looked back at the interviewer, gave a quick nod to indicate that he considered his delivery to have been an adequate take.
The woman switched back to Mandarin: “Even young children are so intrigued they beg their parents to come to Stone Bell Mountain.” She gesticulated to the cameraman, and he immediately switched his direction toward Esmé. She was walking in the courtyard, which was decorated with bare crape myrtle trees and tubs of prunus flower bushes, their tiny pink buds in various stages of emergence. At the far end of the courtyard, an old woman sat on a stool with a baby on her lap, the mother and daughter, respectively, of the caretaker who lived on the temple grounds. Beside them was a dirty-white Shih Tzu, toothless and deaf. It reminded Esmé of the little puppy back at the hotel. As she approached, the dog jumped up, knocked over a low stool, and made a bluff charge at her, barking ferociously. Esmé shrieked.
“Little girlie,” called the interviewer. “Please come back please, so we can ask you question why your parents bring you here.”
Esmé glanced toward her mother questioningly, and Marlena nodded. When Esmé returned, the woman shoved her between her mother and Harry, then said: “You happy to be here with mother and father, come so far enjoy beautiful Stone Bell Temple. Yes?”
“He’s not my dad,” Esmé said peevishly. She scratched at an elbow. The itchy bumps left by mosquitoes made her even more irritated.
“Sorry. Can you say again?” the interviewer asked.
“I said, she’s my mother, but he’s not my dad.”
“Oh! Sorry, sorry.” The woman was now flustered. These Americans were always so frank. You never knew what kind of peculiar things they would say. They openly admitted to having unmarried sex, that their children were bastards.
The woman gathered her thoughts, reaching for a new angle, and began her interview again in English: “Just while ago, you enjoy the beautiful Bai minority folksinging, mountain girl call to her mountain boy. This traditional ballad happen every day for many thousand years. In your homeland you having Christmas ballad for celebrate two thousand years ago also until now. Is true or not true?”
Marlena had never thought of Christmas that way. “True,” she dutifully answered.
“Maybe since you already enjoy our traditional singing we can enjoy your same.”
The camera zoomed in on Marlena, Esmé, and Harry, and the boom was lowered.
“What are we supposed to do?” Harry asked.
“I think they want us to sing,” Marlena whispered.
The interviewer smiled and laughed. “Yes! Yes!” She began to clap. “Now you sing ballad.”
Harry backed away. “Oh, no.” He held up his hands. “No, no. Not possible.” He pointed to his throat. “Very bad. See? Sore, inflamed, can’t sing. Terrible pain. Possibly contagious. Sorry. Should not even be here.” He stepped off to the side.
The interviewer cupped Marlena’s mosquito-bitten elbow. “You. Please to sing us Christmas traditional song. You choose. Sing!”
“‘Jingle Bells’?” Esmé piped up.
The boom swung toward Esmé. “‘Jingo Bell,’” the woman repeated. “Yes! This is wonderful ballad. From Stone Bell to Jingo Bell. Please. Begin!”
“Come on, Mom,” Esmé said. Marlena was horrified at what her daughter had wrought. Of all times for Esmé to choose to be cooperative. Harry strode off, laughing and yelling back in encouragement, “Yes, sing! It’ll be wonderful!”
The cameras rolled. The rain continued to play in the background, and Esmé’s voice soared over her mother’s squeaky one. Esmé loved to sing. She had a friend with a karaoke machine, and she sang better than all her friends. Just recently she had learned that you didn’t have to sing the standard notes; you could do loops around them and land on the tune where and when you wanted. And if you felt the music deep in your gut, a natural vibrato came up. She knew how to do it as no one else she knew could. The pride she felt put a tickle in her throat until she had to sing to soothe it.
Marlena’s and Esmé’s singing grew fainter as Harry strode away. He took a path that led up, and he was soon in front of what he guessed was one of the famed grottoes with its life-sized figures. It reminded him of a nativity scene. The carved faces showed obvious signs of repair, and given the dim light, most of the finer features were difficult to see. Like many holy artifacts, these had been maimed during the Cultural Revolution, their noses and hands lopped off. Harry wondered what the Red Guards might have done to defile the Grotto of Female Genitalia. Where the devil was it, anyway? All those damn signs were in Chinese. What should he be looking for? In trying to imagine it, he pictured the luscious genitalia of Marlena, as she lay splayed on a secret hillside spot. A quickening surged in his groin, but it was not passion.
Bugger. He had to piss. He’d never make it back to that miserable loo. He looked back and could see Marlena and Esmé still performing their musical recital in the courtyard. The old woman had joined the small audience. She was holding the baby, making her clap her little hands in rhythm to another stanza of “Jingle Bells.” Harry chuckled and continued walking along the path until he was out of view. In fact, he discovered he was at the end of the path. And there—how handy indeed—was a public urinal. This one was recessed in rock, about twenty inches wide, two feet in height, with a receptacle brimming with what looked like urine and cigarette ashes. (What that was actually was rainwater that had washed over joss-stick offerings.) The walls were wavy and smooth, leading Harry to think it had been worn down by centuries of men seeking the same relief. (Not so. That stone had been carved to resemble a vulva.) And portions of the loo, he noted, had been etched with graffiti. (The Chinese characters were in reality an engraving attributed to the Goddess of Female Genitalia, the progenitor of all life, the bearer of glad tidings to formerly barren women. “Open wide my convenient door,” was how it translated into English, “so that I may receive good karma from everywhere.”) Harry deposited his karma in one long, hissing stream. At last, his prostate was cooperating, what relief!
Off in the distance, the interviewer decided that it was best to get some shots of the Caucasian man so that she might reinforce the point that tourists came from everywhere. The TV crew walked up the path. From about fifty feet away, the cameraman trained his zoom lens on Harry, who was grinning ecstatically as he issued forth. The cameraman in turn let go with a stream of invectives. He informed the others what he had just witnessed. “Arrogant devils!” Together with the sound man and the male singer, he ran off in the direction of their holiest and now defiled shrine, shouting angrily. Marlena and Esmé followed, baffled and scared.
Harry was surprised to hear the commotion advancing his way. He peered about to see if the temple had caught fire. Were they about to wash away in a flash flood? What were the men so excited about? He walked toward the brouhaha. And then, to his astonishment, they had him circled: three men spitting, lunging, their faces twisted in rage. You didn’t have to know Chinese to realize they were swearing a blue streak. Even the woman in the pink suit, while not as rabid as the men, wore a hostile expression. “Shame you! Shame you!” she cried.
Harry ducked the swing of the boom and hurried to Marlena. “What the devil did you and Esmé do?” The words fell out wrong, but that is what happens when you feel you are about to be massacred.
“What the hell did you do?” Marlena spat back. “They keep yelling something about urine. Did you pee on some shrine?”
He huffed. “Of course not. I used an outdoor urinal—” And just as he said that, he realized the probable and awful truth. “Oh, shit.” He watched as the woman in ancient costume whipped out a mobile phone to tell the Bai minority chieftain what had just happened. How utterly amazing, Harry marveled, they get mobile phone reception way out here in the middle of hell.
The remainder of that momentous afternoon was a frantic attempt to herd the travelers into the bus so they could escape. Bai park rangers found Wendy and Wyatt half disrobed in another grotto. Rupert had to be rescued from a crumbling perch, and in the effort, damage was done to sensitive plant areas and the feet of a carved god. To keep dry, Dwight had kicked in the padlocked door of what he took to be an abandoned shed, and he, Roxanne, and Heidi entered and huddled inside. When park rangers discovered them in this off-limits temple, they shouted at them to get out. Hearing these unintelligible threats, Dwight and Roxanne picked up sticks and swung wildly, thinking the men were rogue thieves. Heidi screamed, certain she was about to be abducted and sold as a sex slave.
The old man at the tollbooth turned out to be the Bai chieftain. He shouted at Miss Rong and demanded a huge fine for all these unspeakable crimes. When he realized she didn’t understand a whit of what he was saying, he switched to Mandarin and ranted at her until she began to cry, letting everyone see she had completely lost face. In the end, he said, each of the “American hooligans” had to pay “a severe price—one hundred renminbi, yes, you heard me right, one hundred!”
What a relief, Bennie thought, when Miss Rong told him. That was cheaper than a San Francisco parking ticket. Everyone was glad to fork over the money and be on the way. When the pile was handed over, the chieftain gesticulated and yelled again at Miss Rong. He held up the money and slapped it, pointed to the back of the bus, at the puzzled faces turned around looking at him, and slapped the money again. With each slap, Miss Rong jerked but kept her mouth pressed closed, her eyes tilted down. “Jeesh,” Wendy said.
When Miss Rong finally got on the bus, her glasses looked steamed. She sat in the front seat, visibly trembling. She did not count heads or speak into the microphone to explain what they would be doing next.
On the bus ride back to the hotel, most of my friends were quiet, the only sound that of fingernails scratching skin. They had stopped at a roadside spot for the customary bathroom break, and a cloud of mosquitoes had descended on them, as if it were the Bai army chasing them away. Heidi passed out hydrocortisone cream. It was too late for the DEET.
Bennie was exhausted. His shoulders sagged. Was this an omen of things to come? Did they think it was all his fault for picking the tour guide? He was trying so hard to be perfect, doing things they were not even aware of! And look, there were no thanks, just complaints and blame and anger.
Dwight broke the silence. He remarked that Stone Bell Temple should have provided signs in other languages. How was he supposed to know it was a temple and not a chicken coop? Vera glared at him. “You still shouldn’t assume you can break into places.” She was angry with all the men except Bennie. They had exhibited the stupid male prerogative of ignoring the rules. Harry was beating himself up, feeling the fool, certain Marlena had a similar judgment of him. He had shouted at her, had accused her, when he had been the idiot who sent those TV folks into a tizzy. He sat at the back of the bus, having banished himself there. Marlena was also mulling over what Harry had said to her. She hated being yelled at by authority figures. Her father had done that, and it didn’t make her feel cowed anymore, just livid.
Wendy was unabashed by what had happened. She leaned against Wyatt, giggling as she thought about being caught in flagrante. It was exciting, in a weird way. She told him so in a naughty voice. He nodded, keeping his eyes closed. What they had done was not cool in his mind. He had been on ecotours where he was the one who had to reel in tourists who stepped on native plants, or tried to sneak home a lizard to keep as a souvenir or to sell. It irked him when people didn’t give a shit about the rules. He hated being guilty of the same.
Esmé sat with her mother, happily humming “Jingle Bells.” She hoped those Bai people would still use the part with her singing.
When the bus arrived at the hotel, Miss Rong muttered a few terse words to the driver, who then went off, leaving her standing alone at the front of the passengers. She kept her eyes turned down. Slowly, haltingly, she told her charges she would not be with them tomorrow. The Bai chieftain had said he was going to report the trouble to the authorities at the head office of China Travel Services. Her local boss had already called her and said to report to him immediately. She would be fired, that was certain. But they should not feel sorry for her, no. This was her fault. She should have kept them together as a group, explained to them what they were allowed to see. That was her responsibility, her job. She was very sorry she did not understand how to work more effectively with such an “individualistic group with many opinions, all not agreeing.” Since they were “so disagreeable,” she should have made stronger decisions to prevent them from committing the “danger of broken rule.” Her glasses were now spattered with tears, but she did not wipe them. She held her body rigid to keep from weeping aloud.
Though Miss Rong was incompetent, my friends were sad to think she might lose her job. That would be terrible. They looked at one another out of the corners of their eyes, unsure of what to say.
Before they could decide, Miss Rong took a deep, quavering breath to steady herself, picked up her plastic briefcase, and stepped off the bus.
My friends burst into talk.
“What a mess,” Moff said.
“We ought to give her a nice farewell tip,” Harry suggested. “Why don’t we collect some money now?”
“How much?” Roxanne asked. “Two hundred renminbi?”
“Four,” said Vera.
Harry raised his brows. “Four hundred? That’s almost five thousand for all of us. Maybe it’s too much. She’ll think we’re pitying her.”
“But we do pity her,” Vera said. “God knows they don’t give people unemployment in China when they’ve been fired.”
“I’ll give more,” Bennie said.
Everyone protested that offer.
Bennie added humbly, “Well, it was my fault for picking her.”
And no one made any noises in denying that, he noticed, and then felt humiliated and rejected, which launched him into anxiety.
“If she’s fired, why don’t we sign a petition of protest?” Wendy said.
Dwight sniffed. “Come on, this isn’t Berkeley. Besides, she really is a pretty bad tour guide.…”
All of a sudden, Miss Rong was again standing before them. My friends hoped she had not heard their exchange. “I forgot tell you one more thing,” she began.
Her former charges listened politely.
“One extra thing Bai minority chief tell me. Important I tell you.”
Oh, shit. The chief probably wanted more money, Bennie thought. Twenty dollars each was too good to be true. They were going to be shaken down for thousands.
This time Miss Rong did not look down. Her hair now looked wild, a statically charged crown. She kept her gaze straight ahead, as if she could see the future through the back window of the bus. “Chief, he telling other tourist authorities don’t letting you in … no cable car ride to Yak Meadow, no ancient music concert, no tourist traps. Because therefore you cannot enjoying no more beautiful things in Lijiang or in all Yunnan Province and China.…” Bennie had a sinking feeling. He saw the tour schedule crumbling, total chaos.
“He say for you bringing shame to Grotto of Female Things, everybody here you never have no more babies, no descendants, no future.…”
Dwight glanced at the mother-to-be of his children-to-be. Roxanne stared back.
Miss Rong’s voice rose higher and sang out louder: “He say even you pay one million dollar, still not enough keep trouble away.… He say he tell all gods give these foreigners bad curse, bad karma, following them forever this life and next, this country, that country, never can stop.”
Heidi’s anxiety bells were ringing.
Miss Rong took a deep breath, and right before she left the bus, she said in a voice that sounded clearly victorious. “This I thought you must know.”
At that moment, all twelve of my friends saw in their minds the water buffalo, knee deep in mud.
At dinner, my twelve friends walked a few blocks into the old historic part of town, to Bountiful Valley Restaurant, which they had rejected only that morning. Now they were resigned to the menu I had called “A Taste of Winter Delicacies.” No one was in the mood to search for alternatives that were either more “spontaneous” or more “authentic.” They were just glad that their ill-omened trip to Stone Bell Temple had not yet infiltrated the word-of-mouth network of Lijiang. Not only did the restaurant send a message to the hotel that they could enjoy the same menu that evening, the owner had offered a bonus, “free surprises,” he called them.
The first surprise was the restaurant itself. It was enchanting, not touristy at all. I knew this all along, of course. That was why I had chosen it. The building was charmingly cramped, a former dwelling whose outer courtyard had been converted into dining rooms facing the narrow canal, one of a watery lacework that ran through the streets of Lijiang. If you were to sit on the sill, you could have dipped your toes in the tranquil flow. The tables and chairs were old, marked with character in the way that has become popular with antiques in America nowadays, nothing refinished, no scratches or cigarette marks buffed out, the century-old bits of food now serving as grout in the cracks.
The beers arrived, somber toasts were called out:
“To better times ahead.”
Dwight immediately suggested they vote in democratic fashion whether to leave Lijiang the next day so they might get an earlier start on Burma. When he called for the yea votes, the only holdouts were Bennie, Vera, and Esmé.
Bennie was understandably concerned about an early departure. If they left early, he would be the one scrambling to patch in a new itinerary. A day in the border town of Ruili and then three extra days in Burma—what would they do? But he said nothing in casting his nay, not wishing to come across as inadequate. He should have realized that the democratic process has no place on travel tours. Once you are a tour leader, absolute rule is the only way to go.
Vera tried to exercise her executive veto. She was used to working in an organization in which she was the top boss. As a born leader, she demanded consensus, and through her unilateral decisions, and her famous eye-locking gaze, she attained it. But here in China she was one of the masses. When the votes were called for, she appealed to the group’s rationality. “Fiddle-dee-dee. I don’t believe for a second that the chief has the clout to bar us from other places. Think about it. Is he able to get on the Internet and e-mail his cronies in a hundred places? Of course not.”
“He had a cell phone,” Moff reminded her.
“I doubt he’s going to waste his precious cell phone minutes to complain about us. He was just spouting off—not that he didn’t have every right to be infuriated.” She cocked one eye and looked toward Harry, Dwight, Moff, and Rupert.
She then switched to sentimentality. “As you all recall, this tour was lovingly designed by my dear friend Bibi Chen, carefully put together as an educational and inspirational journey. If we leave now like scared little mice, we will miss out on some of the greatest adventures of our lives. We wouldn’t get to feel the spray of the magnificent waterfalls at the bottom of Tiger Leaping Gorge.…”
Esmé’s mouth rounded. They were supposed to go there?
“We would be forgoing a ride on a horse with Tibetan nationals in Yak Meadow.…”
That caught Roxanne’s and Heidi’s attention; they had each owned a pony when they were little girls.
Vera went on: “When in this lifetime will you have another chance to see an alpine meadow at seventeen thousand feet? Extremely rare.” She nodded solemnly in agreement with herself. “As are those murals of Guan Yin in the sixteenth-century temple …”
Poor Vera, she almost had them convinced, until she mentioned the murals. Goddesses may have been Vera’s niche in art history, but the mention of Guan Yin made others twitch with anxiety. Another temple? No, no more temples, please. Vera poked at the schedule, which she held up as if it were the Declaration of Independence. “This is what I signed up for. This is what I paid for. This is what I intend to do. I vote nay and I urge the rest of you to reconsider.” She sat down.
Esmé also voted nay, with a slightly lifted hand.
Vera gestured to Esmé to get everybody’s attention. “Another nay.”
When asked to explain her vote, Esmé shrugged. She couldn’t say. The truth was, she had fallen tragically in love. The Shih Tzu puppy had grown weak. When it tried to walk, it stumbled and fell. It would not eat the offerings of Chinese food given by the beauties. Esmé had also noted a lump protruding from its belly. The pup’s caretakers seemed unconcerned by its worsening condition. The lump, they said, was nothing, and one of them pointed to her own chin to suggest that the problem was no more serious than a pimple. “No worries,” they assured Esmé, thinking she was bargaining them down. “You pay less money. One hundred kwai okay.”
“You don’t understand. I can’t take the puppy. I’m traveling.”
“Take, take,” they countered. “Eighty kwai.”
Now, during the vote, Esmé could only sit grimly, chest tight to keep from crying. She could not explain any of this, especially not in front of Rupert, who rolled his eyes and groaned whenever someone referred to them collectively as “the two kids.” He never said anything to her, even when forced to sit next to her, just kept his nose buried in his paperback. Besides, who among these grown-ups cared if a puppy died? “It’s only a dog,” they would say. “Some people have it even worse.” She had heard that excuse so many times it made her puke. They weren’t really concerned about people, just their stupid trip, whether they would get their money’s worth in this dumb country or that dumb country. She couldn’t talk to her mother about any of this. Her mother still called her “Wawa,” a Chinese nickname for “baby.” Wawa, the sound of a crying doll. She hated being called that. “Wawa, what color scarf should I wear?” her mother had said in a girly voice that morning. “Wawa, does my tummy stick out?” “Do you think I look better, Wawa, with my hair up or down?” She was the wawa, so goo-goo stupid over that hairy-armed Hahr-ry Bailley. Couldn’t she see what a big phony he was?
Dwight asked if anyone had anything to add before they officially closed the vote. I was yelling as loudly as I could. Stop! Stop! How can you possibly leave China early? It was utterly mad. Had they known I was there, I could have shown them why it was ridiculous to even think of leaving. I had planned the itinerary carefully, explicitly, so that they might have a taste of the finest, so they could be like “dragonflies skimming the waters.” Now they wouldn’t even touch the surface.
The gnarled pine, I would have said, touch it. That is China. Horticulturalists from around the world have come to study it. Yet no one has ever been able to explain why it grows like a corkscrew, just as no one can adequately explain China. But like that tree, there it is, old, resilient, and oddly magnificent. Within that tree are the elements in nature that have inspired Chinese artists for centuries: gesture over geometry, subtlety over symmetry, constant flow over static form.
And the temples, walk in and touch them. That is China. Don’t merely stare at those murals and statues. Fly up to the crossbeams, get down on your hands and knees, and press your head to the floor tiles. Hide behind that pillar and come eye to eye with its flecks of paint. Imagine that you are an interior decorator who is a thousand years in age. Start with a bit of Tibetan Buddhism, add a smidgen of Indian Buddhism, a dab of Han Buddhism, plus a dash each of animism and Taoism. A hodgepodge, you say? No, what is in those temples is an amalgam that is pure Chinese, a lovely shabby elegance, a glorious messy motley that makes China infinitely intriguing. Nothing is ever completely thrown away and replaced. If one period of influence falls out of favor, it is patched over. The old views still exist, one chipped layer beneath, ready to pop through with the slightest abrasion.
That is the Chinese aesthetic and also its spirit. Those are the traces that have affected all who have traversed along China’s roads. But if you leave too soon, those subtleties will be lost on you. You will see only what the brochures promise you will see, the newly painted palaces. You will enter Burma thinking that when you cross the border, you leave China behind. And you could not be more wrong. You will still see the traces of tribal tenacity, the contradictory streaks of obedience and rebellion, not to mention the curses and charms.
But it was decided. “Nine votes yea, three votes nay,” Dwight announced. “Let’s raise another toast: To Burma!”
DINNER WAS SERVED, “A Taste of Winter Delicacies,” with dishes I had sampled on a previous tour and selected as a sensual experience for the palate. Unfortunately, the restaurant owner made a few substitutions, since I was not there to make any objections.
Wendy was the first to admit that the roadside eatery that afternoon had been “kind of a mistake.” If only she knew how huge. Nonetheless, I was greatly pleased to hear this admission come from her lips. A chastened group was a more honest one. And they raved about the fare I had chosen, or did until they encountered what the cook called “surprises” he had thrown in for free.
One was a roasted root with a crunchiness that the chef claimed the tourists would find as tasty and addictive as their American chips and English crisps. The roasted roots, however, had the unappetizing appearance of large fried larvae, also a regional favorite. But once the travelers were persuaded to try one, they devoured the snappy little appetizer with gusto, as they did a later dish, presented as the second surprise, which also resembled larva, and was. Then came another crunchy appetizer called “dragonfly,” which they took to be poetic license and was not. “This one has more of a buttery flavor,” Bennie said.
The third surprise was a spicy bean curd.
“I’ve eaten ma-po tofu all my life,” Marlena said. “But this one tastes strange. I’m not quite sure I like it.”
“It’s almost lemony, and with a strong bite,” Harry said.
“I don’t care for it.” Vera pushed her portion off to the side.
“It’s not bad,” Dwight said. “Grows on you, actually.” He took seconds.
What they tasted was not the chili substitute often found in American-made Sichuan tofu. The Lijiang version was made of the berrylike pods of the prickly ash. The zing in the mouth derives from the numbing quality that the berries have on the mucosa. And the particular variety of the genus Zanthoxylum that my friends were eating was not only from Sichuan but also of the Himalayan region, where people eat it like jelly beans. It tends to have more heat factor, ma-ness, and also to cause an almost anesthesia-like paralysis of the gut, especially in those who are delicately inclined. That would be Dwight, I might add.
THE NEXT DAY, when the group assembled for breakfast, Bennie had an announcement: “By nothing short of a miracle, Miss Rong, as a final courtesy, was able to book flights for us today so that we can leave as soon as possible.” In a few hours, they would leave for Lijiang airport and fly to Mangshi, which was only a couple of hours’ drive from the Burma border. As Bennie knew, palm-greasing helps to speed things along. The night before, after the group had voted to leave Lijiang, he rang up Miss Rong and said he would give her two hundred U.S. dollars of his own money to use as she saw fit, no questions asked, if only she could help him out of this predicament. She in turn gave away a portion of that to the various expediters connected with hotels, airlines, and the office of tourism, who, in the age-old custom of guanxi-giving, showed their appreciation by granting almost a full refund on the much-shortened visit to Lijiang.
At ten in the morning, they boarded the flight, and as they ascended, so did their moods. They had escaped their troubles with nothing more than a few mosquito bites and the pinch of several thousand kwai.
Their new guide, Miss Kong, was there to meet them at the gate in Mangshi. She was holding a sign: “Welcome Bibi Chen Group.” I was delighted to see this, but it certainly took my friends aback. Bennie quickly introduced himself as the tour leader taking my place.
“Oh, Miss Bibi is not able to come?” Miss Kong inquired.
“Not able,” Bennie confirmed, and hoped the others had not heard this exchange. If the tourism office here was unaware that the original organizer of this trip was dead, what else had they neglected to note?
The guide faced the group: “My name is Kong Xiang-lu. You may call me Xiao Kong or Miss Kong,” she said. “Or if you prefer, my American nickname is Lulu. Again, nickname is Lulu. Can you say this?” She paused to hear the correct answer.
“Lulu,” everyone mumbled.
“Sorry?” Lulu cupped her ear.
“Lulu!” they filled in with more enthusiasm.
“Very good. When you need something, you just shout Lulu.” She said it again, in a singing voice: “Luuu-lu!”
Privately, as they walked toward the bus, Lulu told Bennie, “I saw report of your difficulties at Stone Bell Temple.”
Bennie became flustered. “We didn’t mean—that is, we had no idea …”
She held up her hand like the Buddha asking for meditative silence. “No idea, no worries.” Bennie noted that everyone in China who spoke any English was saying that phrase, “No worries.” Some Aussies must have come through, all of them solicitously murmuring “No worries” at every turn. Lost your luggage? No worries! Your room’s crawling with fleas? No worries!
Bennie wanted to believe that Lulu’s declaration of “No worries” was genuine, that she had solved all their problems. He had been hoping for a sign that their luck had turned, and by the minute he felt she was presenting it. She offered a clear plan, knew all the routines, and could speak the same dialect as the driver.
I, too, thought she was an ideal guide. She had an aura of assurance matched by competence. This is the best combination, much better than nervousness and incompetence, as in the last guide. The worst, I think, is complete confidence matched by complete incompetence. I have experienced it all too often, not just in tour guides, but in marketing consultants and art experts at auction houses. And you find it in plenty of world leaders. Yes, and they all lead you to the same place, trouble.
For Bennie, Lulu’s no-worries and no-nonsense demeanor was as good as two prescription sedatives. Suddenly, devising a new schedule did not seem overwhelming. Her English was understandable, and that alone put her legions ahead of Miss Rong. Poor Miss Rong. He still felt guilty about that. Oh, well. In addition to being fluent in Mandarin, Lulu claimed to speak Jingpo, Dai, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Japanese, and Burmese. “Meine Deutsche, ach,” she went on in a self-deprecating manner full of good humor and mistakes, “ist nicht sehr gute.” Her hair was cut into a short flip. Her glasses were modern, small cat’s-eye frames with a hip retro fifties look. She wore a tan corduroy jacket, drab olive slacks, and a black turtleneck. She certainly appeared to be competent. She could have been a tour guide in Maine or Munich.
“The Chinese border town has very excellent hotel,” Lulu went on. “That is where you stay tonight, in Ruili. But the town is quite small, just stopping-off place where tourists are eager to leave, so not too much for sightseeing. My suggestion is this, so listen: We stop at a Jingpo village along the way.” Bennie nodded dumbly. “Later, we do a bicycle trip to a market, where selling the foods is very exciting to tourist who is seeing the first time.…” As Lulu ticked off various spur-of-the-moment activities, Bennie felt waves of relief. Lulu was doing an admirable job, God love her.
Lulu stood at the front of the bus, counting heads before she gave the takeoff signal to the bus driver, a man named Xiao Li. “You can call him Mr. Li,” Lulu said. Lesser employees, Bennie noted, were accorded more respectful status. As the bus roared into gear, Lulu grabbed a microphone. “Good afternoon, good morning, ladies, gentlemen,” her voice came out, loud and tinny. “You are awake? Eyes are open? Ready to learn more about Yunnan Province here in a beautiful southwest part of China? Okay?” She smiled, then beckoned her charges with a toss of her hand to answer.
“Okay,” a few said.
Lulu shook her head ruefully. “Okay?” Lulu leaned forward, her hand cupping her ear, a now familiar cue.
“Okay!” the travelers shouted back.
“Very good. So enthusiastic. Today, you travel to Ruili, pronounce it ‘Ray-LEE.’ Can you say this?”
“Hey, your Chinese is pretty good. Okay. Ruili is Chinese border town, next to Muse in Myanmar. Pronounce it ‘MOO-say.’” The hand flip.
“Not so bad. In a next forty-five minutes, we are going to see a Jingpo village. For seeing the ordinary life, the ways of preparing food, or growing some vegetables. Is okay? What you think?” This was met with applause. “Agree, very good.” She beamed at her attentive charges.
Lulu continued: “Does anyone know who are Jingpo people, what tribe Jingpo people are related? What tribe, what country? No? No one knows? Then today you will learn somethings new you never hear before, yes, somethings new. Jingpo is a same as Kachin in Burma, the Kachin people in Burma. Burma is a same as Myanmar, Myanmar is new name since 1989. Yes, Kachin people you may have hearing this or not, is very fierce tribe, yes, fierce tribe. You may know, reading this in a newspaper. Who is reading this? No one?”
My friends looked at one another. There were fierce tribes in Myanmar? Dwight seemed oddly interested in this fact. Roxanne had a headache. She wondered if her period was coming, hailing the dismal news, once again, that she was not pregnant. “I can’t stand that microphone,” she muttered. “Can someone tell her to turn it down, or even give us some silence instead of blabbing on and on?”
Lulu went on: “The story is this. The Kachin often make insurrection against the government, the military government. Other tribes in Myanmar do the same, not all, just some do. Karen people, I think they do. So if it is happening, the Myanmar government must stop this insurrection. Small civil war, until everything is quiet. But not here, no such problem. Here our government is not military. China is socialist, very peace-loving, all peoples, minorities, they are welcome and can do their own lifestyles, but also live as one people in one country. So here the Jingpo people are peaceful, no worries that you visit their village. They welcome you, really, they sincerely welcoming you. Okay?” She cupped her ear.
“Okay!” half the travelers shouted in unison.
“Okay, everyone agree. So now you learn somethings new. Here we have a tribe called Jingpo. Over there, Kachin. Language, the same. Business, the same. They do farming, living very simple life, have strong family relations all under one roof, from grandmother to little babies, yes, all under same roof. Soon you shall see. Very soon.” She smiled confidently, clicked off the microphone, and began to pass out bottles of water.
“Finally!” Roxanne whispered loudly.
What a treasure, Bennie thought. Lulu was like a kindergarten teacher who could keep unruly children in order, clapping happily, and on their toes. He leaned his head against the window. If he could get a few winks, his mind would be able to function better.… So many details to attend to … He had to get them checked into the hotel … put together a to-do list before they entered Burma. Sleep beckoned. Mindlessness, senselessness. No worries, no worries, he heard the repeating voice of Lulu with her hypnotic calmness.…
“Mr. Bennie. Mr. Bennie?”
Lulu tapped his arm and Bennie’s eyes flew open. She was looking at him brightly. “For your update, I have some F-Y-I to report. So far I have not secure necessary arrangements into Myanmar. We have no answer, not yet.…”
Bennie’s heart began pounding like a mother who hears her baby’s cry in the middle of the night.
“Of course, I am working very hard for getting it,” she added.
“I don’t understand,” Bennie stammered. “We already have visas for Myanmar. Can’t we just go in?”
“Visa is for coming in five days later. How you got this, I don’t know. It is very unusual, to my knowledge. Also, this way into Myanmar is not so easy, with visa or not with visa. You are Americans. Usually Americans fly airplanes, go first to Yangon or Mandalay. Here at Ruili border, only Chinese and Burmese come in and out, no third-country national peoples.”
Bennie began to sputter. “I still don’t understand.”
“No Americans enter overland, not in very long time. Maybe is not convenient for Myanmar customs to making the border pass to English-speaking tourists. The paperwork is already very difficult because so many peoples in China and Myanmar speaking different dialects.…”
Bennie had a hard time following this line of thought. What did different dialects have to do with their getting a border pass?
“… That why I am thinking this is very unusual, you coming in this way.”
“Then why are we trying?”
“I thinking Miss Bibi want start entry here on China side, drive overland into Muse on Myanmar side. That way, your journey can follow the history of Burma Road.”
“Follow the history! But if we can’t get in, we won’t be following anything but our asses back to America!”
“Yes,” Lulu said agreeably. “I thinking same things.”
“Then why don’t we just fly to Mandalay and start the trip there?”
She nodded slowly, her mouth pulling downward. It was apparent she had strong reservations there. “This morning, before you come, I change everything for you arrive early. Same cities, same hotels, just early date. No worries. But if we fly to Mandalay, skip other places, then I must be changing every city, every hotel. We are needing airplane and canceling the bus. Everything start over. I think is possible. We can ask a Golden Land Tour Company in Myanmar. But starting over means everything is slow.”
Bennie could already see this was a bad idea. Too many opportunities for problems at every step. “Has anyone at least tried recently to come in overland?”
“Oh, yes. This morning, six backpackers were trying, both American and Canadian.”
“All turn back. But you be patient. I am trying somethings. No worries.”
The blood vessels in Bennie’s scalp rapidly constricted, then dilated, causing his heart to accelerate and boom. What the hell did this mean? Where was his Xanax? How was it that Lulu could wear a cheerful face when she had just presented him with such awful news? His tired mind was racing, crashing into dead ends. And would she please stop with the stupid “No worries” bit?
I must interject here. It’s true that no Americans had come into Burma via Ruili in a quite a long time, in fact, many, many years. But I had arranged to be among the first. It was to be one of my proudest achievements on the trip. During my last reconnaissance trip, I had had an excellent tour guide, a young man who was with the Myanmar tourism office. He was very smart, and if I had a problem or needed to change anything, the first thing he said was not, “That can’t be done,” which is the knee-jerk attitude of so many, and not just in Myanmar. This young man would say, “Let me think how we might do that.”
So when I said I wanted to bring a group and travel on the Burma Road from the Chinese border in Ruili and into Burma, he said that this would require special arrangements, because it might be the first time in a long time that this had been done. A few months before we were to start our tour, he wrote and said all the arrangements had been made. They had been complicated, but he had made contacts at the checkpoint, at the central tourism office in Yangon, with the tour company, with customs. The date, he said, was difficult to attain. But it was all confirmed for Christmas Day. Once in China, he would contact me at the hotel in Ruili, and he would be there to guide us through personally. I was so happy, I offered to give him a very special gift on Christmas Day, and he was excited and grateful to hear this.
But of course, neither Bennie nor Lulu knew of this. It was up to me to contact the tour guide again and make sure he could make new arrangements. How I would do that in my present state, well, it was very difficult to imagine.
HARRY HAD RESUMED SITTING next to Marlena, but the momentum between them was rapidly rolling backward. In front of them, Wendy and Wyatt snuggled and nuzzled each other happily. How sad, Harry thought, that he and Marlena were not similarly engaged. It was awkward for him to watch the young couple, see this contrast to him. It almost seemed they were flaunting their sexual intimacy. Marlena, meanwhile, resented their prolonged sessions of French kissing. A little smooching was fine, but this was exhibitionism. Who wanted to see their tongues damp-mopping each other’s gums? The tongue-thrusting looked like a puppet show of a penile-vaginal encounter. Since these slurping antics were right in front of her, she had to work hard to ignore them. It was so embarrassing. She thought about asking them to stop, but then Harry might think she was a prude. Harry, in fact, was thinking of what he could say to begin a conversation with Marlena and reestablish their flirtation.
As Wendy and Wyatt worked themselves into a more fervent session, Harry unintentionally interrupted it by saying to Marlena, “Look at those huge birds! Those wings, how glorious!” He pointed out the window to circling birds. Heads turned, as did Wendy’s and Wyatt’s.
“Vultures,” Wyatt said.
“Mm,” Marlena said. “That’s what they are, all right. We’ve certainly seen a lot of them. Must be there’s a carcass in the field.” She was grateful that Harry thought to point out something that quickly snuffed out thoughts of sensual pleasure. “Chocolate or peanuts, anyone?” She began tossing out Halloween-sized bags of M&M’s and trail mix. She had brought a huge duffel bag worth of snacks. Wyatt started popping chocolates, and Marlena hoped that his mouth, thus occupied, would not continue the lingual gymnastics.
Harry was mentally kicking himself. Vultures! What a sod he was. It was obvious Marlena thought so. Of all the stupid things to point out Of course they were vultures. He should have put on his bifocals. What happened to their spark, their frisson? Like an old married couple, they munched on their candies and stared wordlessly at the scenery with feigned interest and glazed eyes. The flat patches with different hues of green, a few low hills with clusters of trees. It all looked the same.
What they were actually seeing were fields of sugarcane with feathery tassels, thickets of tall bamboo, and twenty-foot-high small-needled pine trees. On the right was a hillside of tea bushes, a plot of carrots with white flowery heads. On the left were golden fields of rapeseed, and next to those, groves of rubber trees with leaves turned orange, red, and brown. Running alongside the road were the most vibrant bursts of life: fiery balls of lantana and scarlet hibiscus with their trumpet flowers open to hail a perfect afternoon. A perfect afternoon wasted on Harry and Marlena.
The bus turned up a bumpy dirt road, and all the nappers were jounced awake. Lulu conferred with the driver, and they came to an immediate agreement. It was time to disembark and walk the rest of the way to the village. The driver turned off the engine. “Bring your hat, sunglass, and water,” Lulu ordered. “Also insect cream if you have. Many mosquitoes.”
“Is there a restroom nearby?” Roxanne called out. Her camcorder was looped around her neck.
“Yes, yes, this way.” Lulu gestured to the side of the road, to the tall vegetation. As people gathered their necessary belongings, tiny whimpers came from the back of the bus. Eyes turned toward Esmé, who appeared to be doubled over in pain.
“Wawa!” Marlena cried out. “Are you sick? What’s the matter?” Light-headed with fear, Marlena ran toward the back of the bus, and the closer she drew, the more miserable her daughter appeared to be. Marlena leaned down to try to help Esmé sit up. A moment later, Marlena gasped: “Oh my God!”
The puppy whimpered again.
Harry ran toward them. Esmé began to howl, “I’m not leaving it! If you do, I’m staying here, too.” Since the night before, Esmé knew the inevitable would happen. They would find out what she had done, and having kept her secret for so long, she had grown more anxious, and now she could not help but bawl. Surges of adolescent hormones contributed to a sense of doom.
Harry lifted a scarf that Esmé had fashioned by cutting up a T-shirt. There in the crook of the hysterical girl’s arm was a very lethargic-looking puppy. “Let me have a look-see,” he said quietly.
“You can’t have it!” Esmé blurted and blubbered. “If you try taking it I’ll kill you, I swear I will—”
“Stop that!” Marlena scolded. In the past year, Esmé had said this a few times to both her and her ex-husband’s new wife. Though Marlena knew it was just histrionics and empty threats, it pained her to hear her daughter use the word “kill” when there were teenagers who had acted upon such enraged thoughts.
Harry put his hand on Esmé’s shoulder to calm her.
“Don’t touch me!” she shrieked. “You can put your grimy hands on my mom but not on me. I’m underage, you know!”
Marlena flushed, and Harry did, too, with embarrassment and indignation. He looked up to see the others in the bus staring at him.
“Esmé, stop this right now,” Marlena said.
Harry, remembering his training as an animal behaviorist, recovered his equanimity. With frightened dogs, shouting never helped matters. He made himself a symbol of calmness. “Of course no one is going to take away your puppy,” he said in a soft voice. “I’m a veterinarian, and I can see what’s the matter with him.”
“No, you’re not!” Esmé sobbed. “You play a stupid dog trainer on a TV show. You make them do stupid pet tricks.”
“I’m also a veterinary doctor.”
Esmé’s sobs subsided into sniffles. “For real? You’re not just an actor?” She eyed Harry, assessing whether to let go of her distrust.
“For real,” Harry acknowledged using this Americanism he usually despised. He began to talk to the puppy. “Hey, little wiggle-waggle, not feeling so well?” Harry opened the puppy’s mouth and expertly peered at its gums, touching them lightly. He pinched up the skin on the puppy’s back and let it fall back. “Gums are quite pale,” he noted out loud. “See here? Slightly grayish. And see how the skin slowly drapes. Dehydration.” He lifted the puppy and peered at its underside. “Mm. And it’s a little lassie.… With a hernia in her umbilicus … About five weeks old, I reckon, likely not properly weaned.”
“A lassie,” Esmé said wondrously. Then: “Can you save her? Those girls in the hotel were just going to let her die. That’s why I had to take her with me.”
“Of course you did,” Harry said.
“But darling,” Marlena intervened, “the sad, sad thing is, we can’t bring a dog with us, no matter how much—”
Harry put his palm up to indicate that her tack was going to backfire. He continued petting the pup as he spoke to Esmé. “She is a beauty.” And then in tones of admiration: “How in the world did you get her past security and onto the plane?”
Esmé demonstrated by draping the triangled make-do scarf as a sling for her arm. She put a zippered sweatshirt over that. “It was easy,” she said proudly. “I walked right through. She never made a peep.”
Marlena looked at Harry, and for the first time since the debacle at the temple, their hearts and minds sought one another.
“What are we going to do?” Marlena mouthed.
Harry took charge. “Esmé, do you know when it last ate?”
“I tried to give her some eggs this morning. But she’s not very hungry. She ate only a tiny bit, and when she burped, it came up.”
“Mm. How about her stools?”
“Has she been making any poops?”
“Oh, that. She’s peed, but no—you know, none of what you called the other. She’s really well behaved. I think whatever it is has to do with that lump on her belly.”
“Umbilical hernia,” Harry said. “That’s not necessarily serious or uncommon. Rather prevalent in toy breeds. Strangulation of the intestines could be a problem later, but most resolve in a few months’ time, or if needed, it can be repaired with surgery.” He knew he was saying more than was necessary, but he wanted Esmé to believe completely in his ability to help.
Esmé stroked the puppy’s fur. “So what’s wrong with her? Sometimes when she gets up, she runs really fast like she’s crazy, then falls over.”
“Could be hypoglycemia.” He hoped to God it was not parvo. “We need to get her rehydrated at the very least, and right away.” He stood up and called to the others on the bus. “Would anyone by chance have a medicine dropper?”
A terribly long silence. And then a small voice asked, “I have an eyedropper, but would a sterile needle and syringe be better?” That was Heidi.
Harry was too surprised to answer at first, then blurted, “You must be joking. You have one?” And when Heidi’s face reddened and fell with embarrassment, he revised himself quickly: “What I mean is, I didn’t expect—”
“I brought it in case of accidents,” he heard Heidi explain. “I read that you should never get a transfusion in a foreign country. AIDS is rampant in China and Burma, especially on the border.”
“Of course. Brilliant.”
“I also have tubing.”
“And dextrose … in an IV solution.”
“Wow!” Esmé said. “That’s so cool.”
Harry scratched his head. “That’s … that’s absolutely amazing.…” I’m not sure if we should use them. After all, if we used your emergency supplies, they would not be usable later, if, well, you know, an accident did happen—”
“That’s okay,” Heidi said right away. “That’s why I brought it, for any emergency, not just for me. I also have glucose tablets, if you want to try those instead.”
Harry again couldn’t help registering surprise.
“I’m hypoglycemic.” Heidi raised her right wrist and displayed her MedicAlert bracelet.
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