I’m standing by the side of the road, in a patch of dirt where the grass has stopped growing. My hands are stuffed into the pockets of my jeans like loose Kleenex or two oversized packs of Doublemint Gum. Eventually an old bus will appear off in the distance, at some point between the granite and the sky. Until that happens, all I can do is wait, stand here on this spot that’s known as the bus stop despite there being no marker saying that it is. There is, mind you, a naked metal signpost that once clearly identified this spot of land as the bus stop, with a thin plaque displaying the bus number and its time schedule. Now the plaque is gone and there’s nothing on it – it’s only a curved piece of muted black metal that, like me, apparently has no idea as to when the hell the bus is coming.
The night before, I took a cab with a guy named Johnny, down to the Walmart about twenty minutes from our apartment building. Johnny is also new here – we both arrived on the same day, which meant our apartments were similarly empty and we were both similarly clueless as to how to fix that. So we went down to Walmart, and Johnny bought a bunch of cups and forks and I bought some clothes hangers. I’m not sure if I like Johnny. He’s loud and talks endlessly. He rambled all through our taxi ride back, going on about a book he read, millions of words describing thousands of years of ancient Chinese history.
“Sorry,” he said at one point. “I spent all of last year virtually by myself, reading in my room. I know I’m talking too much but I can’t help it. It feels good to finally have somebody to talk to. It’s been awhile.”
This is my first time in China. Johnny has already spent one year here, in a wealthy province to the west of where we are now. He tells me why he wanted to move.
“It was all the loneliness,” he says. “It wears you down. I read so many books…after a while, I didn’t even want to read anymore. The thought of reading depressed me. There was another guy working at my school – another American – and he flipped out. Couldn’t stand it any longer. He lived in the same building as me and one night he started screaming his head off. Totally freaked out. This was, maybe, three or four in the morning. The school had to send him back to the States. I remember hearing him screaming at the top of his lungs in his room and then the next day he was gone. Vanished. But I understood how he felt. That fucking isolation…it makes you start to lose your mind.”
This story is what I’m thinking about while I stand here and wait for the bus. Already half an hour has passed. A few Chinese people come, standing alongside me, joining me in looking off into the distance.
I turn my head and close my eyes. And when I do, I can almost hear that man alone in his room, screaming for someone.
A week passes. I run into Johnny in the school cafeteria. We sit down together.
“Have you met any of the other teachers?” he asks.
“Not really,” I say. “I mean, I met a few of them, as in I introduced myself, but I haven’t gotten to know them or anything like that.”
“Me neither,” he says. “What do you do all day?”
“Not much. Just trying to settle in.”
He nods. “I’ve been reading the history of Turkey. It’s fascinating.”
He goes on to disprove this, relating some dull details about the Ottoman Empire. Sometime in the 1500s, he gets bored of his own conversation and trails off, his train of thought switching tracks.
“Hey,” he says, “there’s a bar not far from here. It’s owned by an American. One of the teachers here. Want to go down there, get a drink? We can walk to it. Maybe there’ll be some other people there.”
I agree and after dinner we head out, walking through a forest, down a narrow foot path lined with skeletal white trees. It’s getting dark. Johnny leads the way, taking me into a sparse Chinese village where all the houses are shaped like Lego blocks, short and rectangular, all painted the same baby blue color. I can smell burning coal in the winter air. I follow him to the bar. Inside, there are four other people, all drinking and playing poker. They obviously notice us – we’re new arrivals, unfamiliar faces. They tell us their names and buy us shots of whisky.
“Welcome to Beijing,” one of them says, and then bursts out laughing. We’re so far from actual Beijing, the center of it, so buried in the outskirts, that we might as well be in a desolate region of northern Russia. “It’s not too bad here. You’ll get used to it.”
Johnny and I sit and drink while the rest of them play poker. Hours pass. More beer, more shots of whisky. I stumble to a store where there’s no heat and the man behind the counter breathes out puffs of smoke and punches the price of the cigarettes I want into a calculator because he doesn’t speak enough English to tell me how much they cost. Back in the bar everyone is getting good and drunk. I go and piss in an alleyway next to the bar, in the darkness, while a litter of small dogs run around the opposite end. There’s no toilet in the bar and the public restroom down the street gets locked at ten, so this is it. A cigarette dangles from my mouth and I zip up. Johnny buys the next round and I get the one after that. Around one in the morning, my head is spinning and I step outside again.
“I’ve got to get away from this place,” I say to myself. “I can’t be here anymore. I want to be somewhere else.”
I wander off by myself. My thoughts have gotten all mixed up, knotted around in my brain like neurofibrillary tangles – they sound like a million voices overlapped. I walk back the same way I came, taking the footpath down through those white skeletal trees. I can’t see shit because it’s pitch black out, relying on my feet and instincts to lead me. There’s a dim light somewhere in the distance and I know that’s my apartment building. It’s dead quiet and I concentrate on following the path. I try to light a cigarette but have no lighter.
“Son of a bitch!” I yell, the unlit cigarette between my fingers. “This sucks! Where the hell am I? What the fuck am I doing here?”
My hands are shaking. Anger wells up inside of me, ignited by the whisky and the strangeness of this all. This is my first week in China and all I want is to be someplace I’m familiar with, back in the company of someone I know and care about.
“I don’t want to be here!” I scream into the dark sky. “I don’t want to be in this fucking place! God damnit! What was I thinking? What have I done?”
The next thing I know, I’m walking towards my apartment building, lost in a fury, gone, a shadow in the soft yellow lights that line the side street. In a flash, a motorbike whizzes past me, coming a bit close, almost hitting me. Or maybe it doesn’t almost hit me, I don’t know, it could’ve been ten feet away but I feel like it almost hit me, it seems as though that fucking thing nearly grazed the belt loops on my jeans. I have no idea who’s driving it, but I run towards it in a panic. I’m not a person anymore but the embodiment of an emotion, a living exclamation point, the dot at its bottom pooling around my feet. I hate this place, and I hate this motorbike and whoever is driving it, I hate everything. It’s parked slightly down the street, in a space close to the apartment building, and two men are getting off of it.
“Hey you, you motherfuckers!” I holler. The two guys on the motorbike look in my direction, understandably confused. At first they try to tell me to calm down but I’ve already lost it. I stagger up to one of them, adrenaline coursing through me, and throw a wild punch at his head. He ducks and I miss. The other man runs over and shoves me.
This second dude is much larger than the first. That doesn’t stop me. I take both of my hands and shove him back as hard as I can. He doesn’t budge. Instead, he pushes me again, harder, and I go flying. Airborne. Like Michael Jordan taking off from the free throw line during a dunk contest, played in reverse, only instead of landing on my feet I land flat on my ass, several feet away, and both of the men shake their heads in disgust and pity.
By the time I get back on my feet, they’re gone. I’d landed on my wrist and can barely move my hand. I attempt to make a fist but can only wince in pain.
The apartment building is right in front of me and I make my way to my bed. Before I get under the covers I try to light that same stupid cigarette I’d been carrying for what seems like hours, pressing its tip onto the stove burner. Nothing happens. This just wasn’t meant to be – I can’t even figure out how to turn the burner on.
Failure. The pain in my wrist. I never want to see a motorbike again.
I crawl into bed with my unlit cigarette and fall asleep.
It’s now six months later. I’m standing at the same bus stop, waiting for the bus again. The sign marking the bus stop has been fixed and a huge green and white schedule is screwed firmly into the crest of the looping black metal pole. I need to go to the store to get some clothes. It will probably take at least three hours to make the full trip. It’ll feel like a total waste. Half a day lost, devoted to a new pair of khakis.
That night at the bar, shit, that was the beginning of a dark depression that took some time to finally pass. I feel calm waiting for the bus to appear, not anxious. At peace with it, the waiting. About a month after that night, I was able to track down the guys on the motorbike. One of them eventually left, returned to America. The bigger dude. I never apologized but whatever, I’m sure he’s gotten over it. The other guy was the bar owner, as luck would have it, and he laughs and has me tell the story to a group of new teachers at the start of the next semester. He’s a good guy and I’ve probably apologized to him one thousand times. I’m glad I missed his head when I tried to hit him.
Then there’s Johnny. He’s gone now, too. He got too depressed, too worn down by all the nothingness, the empty land and the stray dogs. He’s moved to another place in China, one where there are more buildings and more stores, more history and more people to tell about it.
And I’m still here, along with that blue village and this black pole and those white trees, the silence and the smell of burning coal in the winter. I see the bus coming and I get ready, but it’s too filled with people, overloaded, and it passes by without stopping.
I turn my head to watch it go. Fifty people packed into a small narrow space. They disappear into the distance while I stand here, happily alone, in the comfort of the open air.