By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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Rain pounded on the train-station roof like kettle-drums. We were the only two foreigners in the waiting area, and faces turned each time we spoke, watching and listening. But this didn’t bother us. We had been in China long enough now that we were immune. We could say anything in public, as long as we said it in English.
“Michael, this is simple,” I said. “Basic math.” I was sitting on a hard plastic seat, backpack leaning against my legs. “I just don’t have the money.” My clothes were still drenched from the run through the rain. I hadn’t showered in three days.
“But why not use mine?” he said. “I mean, c’mon, Marya. What’s mine is yours, too. You know?”
The ceiling arched high above, there were no windows, and the walls were made of cement. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been in a building made of something other than cement. ENJOY COKE, said a sign in Chinese. A young girl nearby was chewing on a chicken foot. PRACTICE FAMILY PLANNING, said another sign. An old woman in a navy blue suit and cap wheeled a cart of steaming food down the aisle. People suddenly came to life as she approached. They jumped from their seats, shouting and pushing and scrambling over each other. They waved crumpled bills in the air. I tried to ignore them. Michael was shivering slightly. The fluorescent lights shone on his wet forehead.
“That’s not the point,” I said, “and you know it. The point is, we agreed. You promised that as soon as I went below a thousand kuai, we would take the next train back to Beijing and find more teaching work or —”
“But that doesn’t make sense. I have the money. I mean, you can have it.” His voice echoed off the cement. “It’s no credit to me. I was just born into a better situation. I just happen to have money. I didn’t do anything to deserve it or anything. So why not use this . . . resource we have at our disposal?”
Rain slapped and reverberated above us. A skinny man in a tank top sat across the aisle, staring at me, wide-eyed. I stared back, feeling a sudden hatred for this man’s near-transparent Chinese socks, poking up like cut-off pantyhose above his cheap dress shoes. “You know it’s not that simple,” I said to Michael. The tank-top man, still looking in my direction, said something to the woman sitting next to him. I nodded at him, but he didn’t respond. The ceiling lights reflected in his spectacles.
“Marya, look at me,” Michael said. His T-shirt was dripping and stuck to his chest. He had not been able to hold down solid food for five days, and his cheeks were beginning to sink into his face. He needed a shave.
I touched his face. “What are we doing to ourselves?”
“I need this,” he said. “Don’t make us stop now. Don’t go away. You can have whatever money you need.”
I pulled my wet knees up and hugged them to my chest. Suddenly, more than anything, I needed to be wearing something clean and dry. I needed a slow weekend morning: flannel pajamas, strong coffee, a newspaper spread out on the kitchen table. I needed popcorn with artificial butter, laundromats and all-night diners and roadside ice-cream stands. “It’s just time,” I explained.
“Please, I can’t —”
“It’s just time. I mean, we both knew we would have to stop at some point, and —”
“Marya, don’t, I —”
“And you know I can’t stand living off your fucking charity.”
The tank-top man was sleeping now, his head tilted back. The girl had finished her chicken foot and tossed the remains onto the tile floor. The woman with the food cart had passed to the other side of the waiting area. I heard the distant bleep-bleep of a child’s video game. Nobody said anything, but the eyes were still watching us; I could feel them.
Michael held his head in his hands. “You were always leaving,” he said. “Sometimes I forget. You know? But it wasn’t all that long ago.”
I remembered how, back in college, he used to talk about jumping off bridges. Never slitting his wrists, taking too many pills, putting a bullet through his skull, eating rat poison. He talked about jumping off bridges. I remembered how every time I heard a siren, its wail punctured my insides, and I wondered if he had really done it this time.
“You were always leaving,” he said.
I remembered how he would scream every time I tried to walk out in the middle of an argument to go to work or class. His cheeks would be swollen from crying. He would scratch at his own face until it bled and say that he needed me. I would say that I had to go; I couldn’t give up my whole life for him, or I would be nothing. I would say he needed to learn to survive on his own. And I would keep walking.
There had been something else, though, besides work or class pushing me out the door. Something I didn’t want to think about now.
He rocked his head in his hands. “Please,” he said. “I need this.”
Something else, something that made me continue walking out that door, even though he was pounding and screaming. Something that I never told him. I didn’t want to think about it, but at those moments I would walk out the door because part of me wanted him to take that jump. Part of me wanted him to die.
“Don’t leave me this time,” he said. “Please.”
“OK,” I said. “We don’t have to stop yet. We can keep going. We don’t have to stop.”
His head hung limp, and I pulled him over to me, his body wet and shivering. I cradled his head and stroked his hair, his face.
“It’s OK,” I said. “Everything will be OK.”
Despite the air conditioning in the guest house, the doorknob is hot under my hand. As the door creaks open, I hope the Australian couple in the next bed doesn’t hear, that his veiny hands are still splayed across her sleeping body. I look out and squint. White sunlight filters through the overhanging grape leaves. Then all at once I am struck by the heat. My throat singes and I cough.
The train station was a month ago. Unlike the humid southern provinces we were passing through then, the Xinjiang region in summer is dry and dusty. The air crackles in my chest like dead leaves. The door swings shut behind me, and I sit down and lean against it. The wood sticks to my back. For some reason, I think of when I used to wait tables in high school, gritting my teeth over the too-tight aprons and skimpy tips; the floral-print old ladies calling me sugar or dear and asking about free refills on the iced tea; the sinewy, red-faced manager spitting curses in Greek. I would walk into the kitchen from the dining room with a heavy tray of dishes, and for a moment the surge of greasy air would choke me, as if I were stepping into the ovens themselves. This heat is like that kitchen in summertime. One time, Scooter, the line-order cook, told me how the heat had scorched the hair clean off his arms. He showed me his elbows — thick, white, and hairless. “Go ahead,” he said. “Feel.”
Michael is sitting at a table under the grape arbors, reading. The arbors are everywhere in the Turpan oasis, their vines hanging twisted and thick over every street. Soft green bunches of grapes are always floating just overhead, but if you pick them, you can be fined a hundred kuai — enough for a week at the guest house, seven or eight dinners, fifty liters of ricey beer, or one novel. I pull myself slowly up and walk toward Michael. Heat rolls up from the cement path, and every breath is like inhaling a cheap cigarette. The patio is empty. The sun shining through the leaves casts dappled shadows across Michael’s naked back. Sweat beads on his shoulder blades. He turns a page and hums. I reach around his bony shoulders, rub the sweat across his chest, and nibble his ear.
“Good morning,” he says, smiling. He turns to face me, and his hands move down the backs of my legs. “The laundry’s already dried on the line.”
“Good morning,” I say, his salt aftertaste on my tongue. From the other side of the patio, a small woman in a white shawl is watching us. I let go and sit down beside Michael as she unlocks the shower building and shuffles inside.
“You OK?” He dogears his page.
“This sun,” I say.
“I know. I mean, just think what it must be like out on the desert today.”
“I can imagine,” I say, thinking of yesterday’s bus ride across the sand: the aisles crammed with chickens and crouching people; the ancient walnut faces smiling without teeth; the thick air. And outside the windows, a bright, diffuse horizon. The driver’s thin shirt was plastered to his body, and he would lean on the horn, shouting in the Uighur dialect and spitting out his window as he careened past blue flatbeds filled with Chinese soldiers. All I could do was pray that the bus wouldn’t break down and leave us squatting at high noon by the side of some remote desert road, waiting for repairs that might come by sundown. The man sitting in the next seat kept offering Michael cigarettes: yellowing sticks with tobacco flaking out the ends. Michael put them into his pocket and said he was saving them for later. “Duo xie,” he said.
“Very good Chinese,” the man said.
Nobody offered me anything.
“We scored,” Michael says now, handing me the book: Camus’s The Plague. “The German guy down the hall just finished this — you know, the one who was stomping on the cockroaches? So we traded. It’s pretty good so far.”
I flip though the pages, the back of my neck beginning to sweat. “What did you give him for it?”
“The Dostoyevsky,” he says, leaning over to dig around in his backpack. “He asked me if it was a classic.” Michael gives a muffled laugh. “I told him yes. Extremely classic.”
I don’t say anything. A couple of weeks ago, while waiting for a minibus to fill up, Michael used my Swiss army knife to cut his big blue copy of The Brothers Karamazov in half so that we would both have something to read for the ride. I carefully secured each half with duct tape. But now the German has the whole thing. Michael must know I never had the chance to read that second half.
He pulls out his beat-up black camera case and stands up. “You’re perfect in this light,” he says, pointing to the vines. Then he backs up and aims the lens at me.
“The sun is too bright,” I say. “You’ll need to spot-meter this shot.”
“It’ll come out,” he says.
“You’ve never even read the manual. Let me show you.”
“Just relax. You’re perfect.” He fiddles with the zoom.
“You don’t even know how,” I say. “You don’t even know. I’m getting breakfast.”
He follows me out from under the grape leaves and into the dirt parking lot. Sunlight glints off leaning rows of rusted bicycles. A young boy is asleep under the umbrella of a drink stand. A sign says, TURPAN GUEST HOUSE. AIR COND. GOOD ROOMS AND SHOWERS. Below that are some Chinese characters I don’t recognize, and some Arabic script. As we approach the street, a minibus pulls up in front of us, stirring clouds of dust into the air. A young man jumps lightly out of the still-moving bus and calls out, “Hello! Thousand Buddha Caves? Jiaohe Ruins?” His voice is piercing. “Very interesting, you will think. Seventy kuai.” Close up, he looks maybe twelve years old, and thin. On his head is cocked a straw hat with World Cup printed on a ribbon across the front. “Sixty-five?”
“Breakfast,” I say.
“Sixty. Sixty kuai.” The boy is wearing a silky blue blazer with white buttons and holding a colorful wad of bills in his hand. He clamps on to Michael’s elbow. “I will show you everything. All the sights.” Several people are already sitting in the bus. A young girl smiles and waves out the window.
“No, thank you,” Michael says.
“You are American?”
“Good. A good country. For American friends I say fifty kuai. All the sights.” The buttons on his jacket are large and luminous and teeter on their threads, swinging back and forth as he gestures with his bright bundle. His hand moves up to Michael’s shoulder.
“We’re hungry,” I say. “We just want to get some food.”
“Food is very far,” the boy answers — to Michael. “Yes, and today the sun is very hot.” His jacket hangs open. His ribs stick out. “Yes, very hot. Maybe you want a ride to the market? We will take you. Ten kuai.”
“You speak very good English,” I say, the dust searing my throat.
“Only so-so,” the boy says, seeming to notice me for the first time. “I like speak to the foreigners. Then I will improve. Practice, practice.”
“Two kuai to the market,” I say: twice as much as the locals would pay.
“Four,” says the boy, glancing quickly back and forth between us, blinking rapidly.
“OK,” Michael says.
I look down at the ground.
“Sorry,” Michael says, and he touches my face.
We have backpacks. We have tin bowls and insulated mugs for tea. We have chopsticks. We have one bar of soap to share, one comb, one bottle of Suave shampoo, one toothbrush, and one almost-empty tube of Crest that we bought in a Shanghai department store. We have no hair-conditioning potions of lanolin or guava peel, no apricot-and-sea-kelp exfoliants, no witch-hazel-and-rhubarb astringents, no avocado-oatmeal clay masques, no deodorant. (Once, Michael forgot to close the cap of the shampoo bottle, and it spilled all over the inside of my pack. He cleaned up the mess, but my clothes still smell vaguely of lemon.) We have two pairs of underwear each — one for wearing and one for washing — one pair of shorts, one pair of wind pants, and one pair of longjohns for cold days. We each have one T-shirt and one jacket. We have sunglasses held together by duct tape. We have sleeping bags that strangers poke at while we’re sitting in train stations or hiking between villages or checking into guest houses. Strangers are always poking and whispering and giggling and pointing.
Everything is in zip-lock bags, in case it rains. We have pale green boxes of birth-control pills. We have tampons. We have cigarette lighters and waterproof emergency matches. We have ballpoint pens and journals with their pages swollen from water. We have passports and visas and credit cards and traveler’s checks and phone numbers, all kept in money belts that we never take off. We have a scroll painting, a watercolor of bamboo with some calligraphy that I know we paid too much for on a street in Yangshuo. (Michael does most of the bargaining, because his Chinese is better.) We have a bottle of antibiotics and a bottle of aspirin and several different brands of diarrhea medicine, none of which works very well. We have a small camping stove and a little canned food — because you never know. We have a bag of marijuana that we bought for pennies on the street in Dali, for a rainy day.
We have packages of instant noodles to give to beggars, because we don’t feel right about giving them money. The beggars are sometimes missing a limb and often send their children after us. The bone-thin boy grabs on to my shirt and says hello, hello like an accusation; he says hello, hello and I can smell the dusty garbage of the streets on him, and he says hello, hello, hello and won’t let go of my shirt until I give him something, because that’s what his parents tell him to do because they’re hungry. So we carry packages of instant noodles. We don’t know what else to do.
We have a pocket-sized Chinese-English dictionary with a red cover and a Lonely Planet guidebook held together by duct tape. We have water bottles and iodine tablets. We have a deck of cards so we can play rummy while waiting for minibuses to fill up, for train-ticket windows to open, for diarrhea to stop — always waiting for something. The game is never over. I am winning, 5,341 to 4,496. We have half-finished chocolate bars hidden in our backpacks, melted and misshapen. We have a knife. We have a can of mace. We have a thick roll of duct tape, because sometimes things fall apart.
After a breakfast of hamigua melon, we decide to look around the city. The melon was a bit underripe, because we don’t know how to pick them. Michael bought it from a bearded Uighur, who grinned and pointed to the yellow globe lolling in the back of his donkey cart. My hands, still covered with the bittersweet juice, stick to the handlebars of the rented bicycle. The bicycle’s paint is peeling, and I hear a low-pitched squealing noise every time I pedal. The sun is high now, and the heat smacks off the pavement. My mouth is parched. Michael is riding ahead of me, back hunched, lithe body twisting over the rusty handlebars. He can’t stop looking all around while he rides. Sometimes he will nearly crash into a tree but veer out of the way at the last minute.
We pass cartloads of people and livestock on their way to market. The women all face the ground, their heads framed in colorful shawls, and some of them hold sheep on their laps. The men watch the road or the heaving backs of their donkeys. The houses here are low to the ground and made of baked white clay. Groups of young boys jump and shout in the dusty alleyways. One of them cradles a basketball in his arms.
Stopping to rest, I catch a movement out of the corner of my eye. Under a grape arbor on my left I see two men and a bull. The bull is tied to a tree. One of the men has a cigarette between his lips. His hands appear somehow too large for the rest of his body and are holding the long, shimmering curve of a knife. The second man, standing on the other side of the bull, jumps and feints, trying to distract the animal. My throat crackles with heat, and I start to cough. Getting off the bicycle, I call out to Michael, but he doesn’t hear; he keeps riding.
The cigarette man lunges. Dark blood spurts from the animal’s neck and falls across the ground. Somehow I always imagined blood to be fire-engine red, but what sprays from the bull is purple and rusty. The man loses his cigarette. My throat hurts. The bull gives a warbling wail, strangely mechanical-sounding, like the distant roar of a jet engine. A torn flap of skin hangs below its chest. I need water. The man lunges again. I picture icy clear water flowing over rocks. The wailing-engine sound grows louder. Thick, dull blood, flecked with pale pieces of flesh. Long, shimmering curve. Water flowing over rocks. So thirsty. Michael disappearing up ahead. The man lunges again.
I kneel down by the roadside and throw up. The man picks up his cigarette.
Here in China, I feel rich for the first time in my life — even when it’s Michael’s money I’m spending. We go out for dinner almost every night. The waitresses always hand Michael the menu, and when the food is ready they put the dishes down in front of him first. Waiting tables back home, I used to hate anyone who ate out regularly. I would smile at them and sometimes even flirt mildly for tips, but the whole time I wanted to break the dishes over their heads and watch the gravy stream down their ruddy, golf-pro faces. Michael says I’m unforgiving. All I ever did was spill a pitcher of ice water once. I think I might have ruined a silk dress, a low-cut ebony outfit worn by a chain-smoking tourist with a raspy New York laugh. She shrieked for the manager. Old Scooter, the cook, laughed and fixed me up a free order of nachos with extra sour cream, just the way I liked them. Now I’m the one who can afford silk dresses. Here in China, I can walk down any street and buy silk from a wrinkled tailor, without even giving it a second thought.
The people we meet on trains think everybody is wealthy in America. Do you like Pearl Jam and Michael Jordan and the Carpenters? they ask. Have you ever been to Seattle? I try to disillusion them.
“There are unhappy people in America, too,” I told one man. “Many unhappy people.”
We were riding in a “hard sleeper” car crammed with triple-decker bunk beds. Everybody sat shoulder to shoulder on the bottom tier during the day. Michael was asleep in his seat, face against the brittle, stained wall.
“Yes, of course,” said the man, smiling. He was wearing sandals and one of the paper-thin dress shirts all Chinese men seem to wear in summertime. “Of course.”
I looked out the window. The landscape of the rural southern provinces glided past: limestone peaks like strange volcanic islands in an ocean of rice paddies.
“What do people eat for breakfast in America?” the man asked.
“Many different things,” I said. “There are many different kinds of Americans.” Then the train passed through a mountain, and all I could hear was the jet black roar of the tunnel.
Michael and I are waiting on a bench in the “foreigners only” shower building. (Chinese guests bathe elsewhere.) The waiting room is dimly lit. Flies hum overhead. A family of Korean tourists sits across from us, and two dark, European-looking men walk in with towels over their shoulders. The small woman I saw earlier is posted behind a desk, still wearing her white shawl, her face unreadable as she hands out shower shoes and keys.
Michael came back and found me sitting by the roadside next to a pool of vomit. He jumped off his bike and handed me his water bottle. The water tasted like bile but cooled my throat. “A cold shower might make you feel better,” he said.
Just a few years ago, I practically had to drag him into the shower every morning. He would wake up crying and refuse to get out of bed. “What’s the fucking point?” he would say with a slight rise in his voice, his face twisted and red. So, every morning, I would pull him up like a great sack of rice and drag him into the shower. As soon as I got him into the water, I’d tell myself, he would be OK; he would make it through another day. Everything would be OK.
So when, by the roadside, he suggested a shower might help, I agreed.
Now his hand rests on my leg, and we share another water bottle, lukewarm from the sun.
“Right now,” he says. “These are the moments you can never capture.” He hands me the bottle. “Like sitting here in this mildewed shower room — we can never capture this. Today you saw something disgusting, something you will never forget. Am I right? Years from now we’ll look back and say this was one of the great days.” His hand moves up to my thigh.
The Korean family stands up, and the white-shawl woman hands them keys. I take a drink of the warm water and pass the bottle to Michael.
“I mean, like sitting here,” he says. “We could take a photograph of this room, but what good would that do?”
“You would have to spot-meter,” I say, and laugh.
“We would have a three-by-five snapshot of a shower room with mildew on the walls. And we would write a concise caption like ‘Guest-house shower room, Turpan.’ ” He takes a long drink.
“I love you,” I say. My fingers move lightly across his knuckles. The white-shawl woman walks over and hands us our flip-flops and separate sets of keys for the men’s and women’s showers. Her face looks rough, as though burned by wind.
Daylight falls into the shower stall through a large hole in the ceiling. Wood chips are scattered in the corners. The flip-flops are too small, so I take them off. The floor is wet cement, warm to the touch. Sweat and steam hang in the air. I turn on the water, which comes out boiling hot, then slowly cools. There is no shower head, and the pipes moan and shudder. The water streams down my soapy body, and I begin to shiver slightly. My mind is empty, the water cold. I am intensely aware of my skin’s being cool for the first time all day. Then there is a clicking sound. I turn around and see Michael at the door of the stall, a finger to his lips. He drops his towel and stands beside me in the water. I hear footsteps out in the hallway. He smooths his hands across my soapy back, my stomach, my breasts. The water is cold. There’s a voice out in the hall. I kiss him hard on the face and laugh. He puts a finger over his lips again, points to the door. I move him gently over to the wall and slowly pull myself into him. More footsteps pass by outside. His arms are shaking, and I hold on to his back. I watch the shadows move on his face: jawbone clenched, eyes closed. The water bursts down in cool sheets.
When the train came back out into the light, the man asked me again, “What do people eat for breakfast in America?”
Michael shifted in the seat but remained asleep. I suddenly wished he would wake up.
“Eggs,” I said quickly. “Toast. Coffee.”
“And the bacon?”
“Sometimes,” I said.
“I do not like the bacon,” the man said quietly.
Outside my window, a village billowed past like smoke: maybe ten or fifteen shacks, no roads, no electric wires; wispy fields and oxen and mountains and children with wide straw hats, and then nothing. For some reason, this excited me.
“Or the hamburger,” the man said. “It is very plain. Or the Nescafé. Or the Pizza Hut. I do not like the Pizza Hut.” He punctuated each phrase with a jab of his finger in the air.
“Me neither,” I said.
He smiled and started to say something, but the train passed through another tunnel. I could feel the engine clattering in my chest.
“What do you do?” I asked when we were out in the open again.
“But the ice cream is good,” the man said. He was looking out the window, his eyes far away. “I like the ice cream very much.”
“Me, too,” I said. “I miss ice cream. So what do you do?”
“I work at an overseas company in Guiyang.”
“Your English is very good.”
On a dirt road beside the tracks, two young boys were attempting to lead an ox. They strained and tugged, but the animal wouldn’t move. The muddy path snaked through the mountains behind them, and the boys didn’t look up as the train blew past.
The man offered me a cigarette, a Marlboro. “So, how many cars does your family own?” he asked.
I knew this man would never own a car in his life. He probably wouldn’t even know anybody who owned one. My family has three, but they’re all old ones. I wanted to tell him how my father spent all his weekends out in the garage, tinkering with the beat-up Chevy. I wanted to explain about the smell of engine grease on my father’s trousers, the way he would rub his blackened hands on a rag and flex his shoulders and snap open a beer can. I wanted to convey the humiliation of being dropped off at college in a restored ’82 Buick station wagon with wooden side paneling. Nothing to be ashamed of, my father told me, but I imagined all the rich kids snickering and mouthing the words financial aid to each other. Three cars, I thought. Three. I wanted to explain, but I was too guilty, too rich to speak.
“How many?” The man insisted.
“You would like something else, maybe?” the waitress asks Michael.
“I don’t know.” He looks at me. “Do you want to do dessert?” We are the only two foreigners left in the restaurant, a little backpacker joint called Mickey Mao’s Information Cafe. According to the menu, they make the best muesli in all of Xinjiang.
“What’s baked Alaska?” I ask the woman.
“Baked Alaska,” she says. She smiles and blushes, covers her face with her hand.
“What’s in it?” I ask.
“Baked Alaska,” she says from behind her hand.
“We’ll take one,” I say, holding up my pinkie. “One. Yi ge. Baked Alaska.”
The waitress smiles and writes something down in her ledger, then walks away. I never even looked at the price. “That OK with you?” I ask Michael, but he isn’t paying attention.
“The global village,” he says, looking at the walls plastered with postcards, sheepskin hats, bright silk saris, shafts of dried red corn, a license plate from Florida that says HAPPY-1, photos of flushed blond tourists clutching massive beer bottles and smiling for the camera. A sign by the register advertises AUTHENTIC UIGHUR MINORITY SONG-AND-DANCE SHOW — EVERY NIGHT. Over the door is a faded metal plaque with a housewife and two pink cherubs and the word Ovaltine inscribed above them. Everything is wicker.
Michael touches my hand. “You know what I would love right now? A real diner. Cheap coffee, bottomless, slightly burnt. Middle-aged waitress with an attitude.”
“Bad country on the juke,” I say.
“And home fries.”
“A stack of pancakes.”
“Of course,” he says. “And everything covered in grease and ketchup. You remember that diner down south on spring break? We walked in straight out of the woods, a carful of smelly hippies with Connecticut plates?”
“Yes, I remember.” I remember bearded men swiveling around on their stools to eye us as we walked in. I remember the waitress’s confusion when I asked for a salad. I remember she said something about Michael’s long hair. I remember his hair, how I used to put my face inside it while he was sleeping and feel it move, like seaweed underwater. I would put my face inside, and it was sponge soft, and I would pretend to be asleep. I would lie perfectly still, breathing his smell.
“But we should live today and be in every moment of it,” he says. I realize that I have been squeezing his hand. “We are in Micky Mao’s Information Cafe,” he says. “What is an information cafe? We don’t know. We are in a place called Turpan. A hot place.”
“We are waiting for something called baked Alaska, and it is nighttime, and we are wearing T-shirts.”
“We are looking at postcards,” he says.
For some reason I can’t stop grinning. I hear a bamboo flute playing somewhere up the street. The waitress is wiping down the tables. She has finished all of them except ours.
“I don’t ever want to be old,” Michael says.
Across the way, children are chasing a stray dog, throwing stones at it.
Michael squeezes my hand. “Promise me something,” he says. His lips tense. “Promise me that we will still be having crazy days like this one when we’re seventy-five.”
I laugh. “Somehow I don’t think Chinese trains are wheelchair-accessible.”
“I’m serious,” he says. “I mean it: I need you to promise that we will see seventy-five.”
In my mind, I am seeing the jump, the wind billowing his cheeks and distending his eyeballs as he falls.
“I need to know every day will be like today, just like this,” he says. “I want us to see seventy-five. Together.”
The wind whistles and presses at his eyebrows, the way it did mine when I used to stick my head out the window of the speeding car, and my father would pull me back. Watch out for mailboxes, kid, he would say.
“I just need to hear you say it,” Michael says.
I stand up and tell him I have to use the bathroom.
I remember a few years ago, how every time we made love I would get up to use the bathroom afterward. I would walk down the hall to the antiseptic dormitory bathroom and sit on the clean white toilet and stare at the walls and feel empty. Here, there are no toilets, only holes in the ground. In the larger cities, the holes are made of cement or imitation porcelain, and water flows through them. In the countryside, there is usually just dirt and a pool of sewage. I remember, on one of the Buddhist holy mountains, the toilet was nothing but a hole in the side of a cliff, and I looked down while squatting and saw a thousand-foot drop below. I’ve looked down into train toilets and seen the tracks whizzing past beneath me. These days, I barely even notice the gagging stench, and my leg muscles are getting stronger from all the squatting. Still, I’m forced to use the bathroom quickly, and I miss having that moment to sit and think. More than anything, I wish I had that moment right now. But what is there to think about? Everything changes. These days, after Michael and I make love, we hold each other so tightly that we can hardly breathe. In that silence, we are inside each other completely.
When I come back out, most of the restaurant’s lights have been shut off. A thick net of pale desert stars hangs outside the open door. The dry air tickles the back of my throat. The waitress has disappeared, probably to clean up the kitchen. I think of how passionately I used to hate that last table of the night, the ones who stayed forever, sipping their drinks and conversing in their tweedy accents, keeping me from a good night’s sleep. I didn’t understand how they could be so spoiled, so completely unaware. But tonight, I am that last party. The tables are all wiped down, the lights have all been shut off, but we are still here.
“Don’t you love it,” Michael asks, “when your food arrives while you’re in the bathroom?” He is running a spoon up and down a huge mound of ice cream, circling the frozen surface. He smiles unsteadily and holds out another spoon to me. The silver flashes and trembles in his palm, and I take it without hesitation.
“I promise,” I say.