I need to ask a very large favor of you, and that favor is this: could you please pretend that it is currently February? If you could do this for me, just this once, I would be very grateful, because it would allow me in turn to pretend that I am not months behind in regard to all possible and several impossible aspects of my life. And you remember February, yes? When everything in the Northern Hemisphere is cold and dark and shitty? Very well then. And thanks.
In February a friend of mine from elementary and high school whom I had not seen since 1986 was scheduled to marry in Nanchang. He invited me to attend, and I was thrilled to go and see him and his family and meet his fiancée. But leaving my own wife alone with our two children was not a favor (again with the favors!) to be asked lightly, so I made plans to travel down and then immediately back up, a two-day trip. And I proposed this plan to my wife, and she said, “Please do not be so very ridiculous. Nanchang is a long way away. Go for four days or five, and enjoy, and see, and then come back happy.”
So I revised my plan, and five days became six and then nearly seven, and still my wife agreed, because she saw how content the planning made me. The thing is this: before meeting my wife, I traveled very nearly constantly, and nearly always alone, because that is how one might see most and best. Since getting married I have done it that way not at all, and do not regret this in the slightest: the tradeoffs I made were very good ones. Nonetheless: nostalgia for aloneness in the midst of what is unknown.
Harried packing the morning of departure and the taxi to the airport and the waiting and the bus out to the plane, except the bus goes nowhere for a very long time, and I observe a Buddhist monk sitting not far away, his old hand-sewn quilted robe in bronze-brown cloth, his close-shaven head and crossed eyes, the series of 12 round scars in lines spanning his head from crown to brow, which makes me think of electroshock or torture, though, of course, I have no idea. He has not bathed recently or concerned himself much with the state of his teeth, and the other passengers look at him with disdain and a bored sort of pity. He takes out his cell phone, fiddles with it, holds it to his ear but never speaks.
Finally we know why the bus is not moving: it is waiting for a group of passengers that only now arrives. Out of spite, I refuse to observe them, especially the woman in the extremely tight pink sweater.
Nanchang in February is not an attractive place, but then so few places are. It is, of course, dark and rainy, and, perhaps to make up for this, my friend’s fiancée’s friends pick me up at the airport in a police car, and allow me to sit in back. I consider requesting that they turn on the lights and siren, and instead watch the outskirts of Nanchang pass rainily.
And the next two days are splendid: John exactly as I’d thought if still smarter and faster and funnier than I’d remembered, and his fiancée delightful, and her family welcoming, and his family precisely as charming as ever, and at long last I am able to thank his mother for all those times she drove us to Healdsburg for CYO basketball games and God knows why but she allowed us to take our shoes off on the way home and for that alone I am certain a place has been reserved for her wherever good persons go when they die, which frankly I am hoping is the 1983 version of Cozumel.
The wedding itself was a marvelous conjunction of processions: the trip to Jing Jing’s parents’ house to kidnap her—which was easier than I’d expected given that the door was manned only by an easily bribed 9-year-old cousin—and hand-carrying her to her parents’ other house amid ropes of exploding fireworks and caravans of black Audis, and a ceremony involving tea, and then to the banquet room of the hotel and other ceremonies involving formal Western dress and toasts and speeches and formal Chinese dress and a large red knot and walnuts and dates and peanuts and more toasts and more speeches and lunch and then significantly more toasts and wedding gift-bags containing quite simply the finest wedding-gift-bag cigarettes ever smoked.
The rest of my day is dedicated to that wonderful pure sort of selfishness consisting of looking at things and thinking about them. I walk to the Teng Wang Ge, and its worthy collections disappeared as so many did during the Cultural Revolution and have not yet been adequately replaced, but it is a beautiful space all the same. Then out along the Gan Jiang waterfront in light rain, and there is an old man walking backward in the middle of the avenue, dressed warmly but bare-headed, limping, holding an umbrella but not using it, chanting, and it is a tuneless song or cadence or gibberish and there is no way to know.
A fleet of tugs and scows on the leaden water. A police boat skimming past. A deeply rusted houseboat at anchor bearing a sign proclaiming itself the Nanchang Winter Swimming Association Headquarters, and now the rain and wind gather strength, so back up the avenue and again past the hatless old man, still walking backwards, still chanting. A taxi to Martyrs’ Square and its odd geometric commemorations of insurrection long past, and then to a roundabout under which I will theoretically be able to take interesting pictures of people cooking things darkly, except the walkways are closed, so instead to a café.
Now, I am a person who consciously refrains from taking pictures of signs with funny English, because who am I to be making fun of anyone else’s translations from any language to any other, and also because I am grateful that they have made the effort regardless of the outcome, but the menu at the café in which I take refuge, it is indescribable. Or, no. I can describe it. I am a professional and description is always possible: this menu, it is a Bretonesque wet dream of prose poetry, a machine translation on hallucinogenic mushrooms staring at the pyramids of Palenque and getting it, man, finally getting it.
A sample: I am tempted to order, but do not, the Cigarette Meat Intestines Son Fries a Pair of Eggs Sandwich. Also, the Fry the Horse’s Gluey Fish to Stew Fragrantly Stew. Instead I have the (inordinately tasty and normal) Famous Allusion Quotation Company Sandwich, and a gorgeous pot of Blue Mountain coffee, and smile, and smile, and smile.
The evening involves crashing the newlyweds’ wedding night with a dozen of their friends, and a number of programs requiring things to be put in places that would have been hysterical even without all the beer and wine and baijiu. Then back to my hotel, and bad cable movies until dawn.
To Be, as They Say, Continued