They arrived when the sea was swelling, threatening to sweep the old world back with it.
Image from Flickr via Jia Wei
They arrived when the sea was swelling, threatening to sweep the old world back with it. The rocky shore, barricaded by reeds sprouting from still pools of water, bordered an empty plaza with shiny monuments and statues, like a city of the future waiting for the new world to begin.
They were here for the World Expo in Shanghai, taking a long weekend, a rare holiday from their jobs, their first trip out of South Korea since they’d arrived four months ago. Laurie had wanted to go to Koh Samui in Thailand, where beaches stretched like linked arms circling, where she could pick a coconut freshly fallen and drink its milk with a straw. But Knox had already bought the plane tickets to Shanghai, and, before she’d had a chance to object, had booked a hotel through a travel agent in Itaewon. He’d wanted to go to the Expo since he was a kid, he confessed. The year he’d been born, 1982, the Expo had been held in Knoxville, and his parents had named him in honor of it, even though they lived in Johnson City. Her friends Aileen and Cilla were already in Koh Samui, getting high and meeting shirtless boys from around the world. But she had Knox, she reminded herself, and they didn’t. Knox, who had saved her from disappearing. She felt sorry for people who did not have Knox in their lives, which meant she felt sorry for most of the world.
She thought about walking downstairs and joining them, taking the bus to wherever was next, more water or more trees or more people. But she could not disappear here, just as she could not disappear in Seoul, and before that, Tokyo.
The airport taxi dropped them off at the end of a single lane road where a Holiday Inn Express, young and gleaming, awaited as if it had been built just for them. Workers sporting plastic nametags with English nicknames, like John and Meg and Amy, greeted them in Mandarin. Their room was almost American, with cheerful phrases reminding guests that the free breakfast buffet was from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. in the mornings and to please call the front desk if you needed a razor or toothbrush. They spent the first night enjoying the clean blandness of the room, the plumped pillows and flat screen TV, which yielded only one station in English, CCTV.
“It smells like a new Barbie,” Laurie said, wistfully.
“It’s like a post-apocalyptic ‘Lady with a Lap Dog,’” Knox said. “A seaside with a plaza and a hotel.”
“But there’s no watermelon slice. No affair.”
“Then maybe it’s more like The Sun Also Rises or something by Joan Didion or Kundera.”
“You mean it could be about anything,” Laurie said. She had not read those books.
That evening on the empty plaza, Knox posed with two oversized statues of iron men, fishermen clad in bulky rubber boots, men seven feet tall, with barrel chests and thighs. A metal arch loomed over the bulk of the plaza, a gentle open curve with beams that crisscrossed the clouds, like a large net dropped from the sky. They promenaded its length and at the other end discovered a concrete sculpture of an open book the size of their tiny bedroom in Seoul. The book sculpture opened to the middle, the pages filled with Chinese characters, with Laurie, Lilliputian-like, fitting in its crease. Except for the plaza and the sea, now receding, the world was landscaped grass and concrete, no trees or people, nothing else vertical except for the hotel, a lonely building, whether abandoned or waiting Laurie was not yet sure.
“This must be like Thailand,” she said. She closed her eyes and pretended she was on a lounge chair with a book she could read, the sun warming her face.
“Better,” Knox said, joining her in the crease of the book. “We’re the only ones here.”
The next morning they woke early, and in the darkness of the heavily draped room they had sex, lethargic and syrupy. After, wrapped in a towel damp from her shower, Laurie drew the drapes aside and admired the landscape, some stranger’s unfinished dream. The only sound was Knox’s slow, patient voice on the phone, asking the front desk for a razor, which he’d forgotten.
Now, she heard him mutter into the receiver, “What skullduggery,” before he hung up the phone. Knox used words like that without irony. Scallywags. Shenanigans.
Outside the window, a tourist bus was chugging as a line of Chinese tourists in matching blue shirts and sun hats boarded. She thought about walking downstairs and joining them, taking the bus to wherever was next, more water or more trees or more people. But she could not disappear here, just as she could not disappear in Seoul, and before that, Tokyo. She’d disappeared for a while in San Francisco, just another thin blond girl with a leather jacket, and that had been good until it had not, when disappearing became not existing, when she began to believe that she could become corners and tables and walls, that she could float above everything and everyone and not be noticed. Then Knox had found her one night at a party squatting in a dark space not far from the speakers, her usual spot for observation, and he’d joined her, narrating the events of the party as they unfolded as if she were blind and needed guidance. “See this guy,” Knox had said, “he thinks he’s Jay Gatsby or something, and this one, he looks like he’s trapped in a Bret Easton Ellis novel—you know they used to wear skinny jeans in the eighties except they called them peg legs and they had zippers on the side.” And on he went, for the rest of the night, until she finally asked him why he was talking to her like this. “Because I could tell you were about to disappear,” he said. “I had to stop you.”
Now, she heard him mutter into the receiver, “What skullduggery,” then hang up the phone. Knox used words like that without irony. Scallywags. Shenanigans. She loved that about him. She felt his breath on her back as he circled her waist, allowing her towel to loosen. “Can I borrow your razor?” he whispered in her ear. “They don’t understand English.”
“Only if I can shave you.”
“It’s harder than it looks. I have a very angular face.” But he allowed her—him sitting on the toilet, her bending over him, both of them naked, his face lathered (he had not forgotten the shaving cream), a warm wet towel around his neck because that’s what Laurie remembered from the movies, and she shaved his face, whiskers collecting in the foam like black creatures caught in a blinding snow.
They dressed and arrived for breakfast at 8:30 a.m. Although the restaurant was empty, there was no place to sit. The tables towered with dirty dishes, spilt food, and half-finished plastic glasses of juice and tea. Chopsticks and forks were equally scattered. At one end of the room a woman pushed a cart, methodically cleaning each table, while a young man leaned against a wall, laconically watching the woman. They wore crisp uniforms and had English names affixed to their coats, yet they did not acknowledge Laurie or Knox.
“Are we ghosts?” Laurie whispered.
“You know, that’s what they call white people. Or used to at least.”
Laurie touched the smooth, pale hollow of Knox’s cheek. “I can see why they’d think that.”
The buffet table was almost barren. Rice porridge clung to the sides of one cooker, cracked balls of rice to another. A few hard-boiled eggs, peeled and soaked in soy sauce, were all that remained. Knox approached the man and pointed to the desecrated table and the sign above it, indicating that breakfast was until 10:00 a.m. The man shook his head and looked away. Laurie and Knox cleared a spot on one of the tables and ate their eggs while they watched the girl leisurely stack dirty plates in her cart at the other end of the room.
After breakfast, they discovered they were still an hour away from Shanghai, staying in a hotel in a city in China that did not yet officially exist. They saw into the future, the Chinese did, creating worlds Laurie could not even imagine, a future she felt privileged to glimpse. She was tired of the present—of her sad American life in Seoul. And so, when the hotel manager told them they must take a taxi to the bus station to get into Shanghai, she accepted the conditions willingly.
Knox did not see things her way. “Sounds like a lot of rigmarole. What if we don’t get to see what we came for?”
“We will,” Laurie said.
The taxi dropped them off at a provincial bus station in the middle of a field. They joined the line for Express Bus 4 as the hotel manager had instructed. After twenty minutes, a bus arrived and they boarded it. While Knox examined the subway map he’d picked up at the airport, Laurie looked out the window, waiting to catch a glimpse of Shanghai. For the first half hour the city was nowhere to be seen; instead they rambled by young growth forests, pastures, possibly farms, then closer in, tiny villages with tin roofs and chickens running about, rags hanging on tattered lines. Mud, outhouses, rusty spigots. Then, finally, they were in the city, and the bus dropped them off somewhere still far from the Expo, so they boarded the subway that would take them there according to Knox’s map. After arriving at their chosen stop, they exited a subway station that faced a tourist information center. Banners announcing the arrival of the World Expo, in English and other languages, hung on the walls and from the ceiling of the almost empty office. One woman would not look up from her computer, clacking away on something seemingly important. A young man beside her slowly ate a banana, relishing every bite. Knox shuffled through the brochures stacked on a table near the door, hoping to find something in English. Laurie walked up to the man eating the banana, suddenly hungry. She waited for him to look at her, but he kept his eyes on the banana, which he carefully peeled a half inch after each bite. She was about to speak when she felt Knox’s hand on her shoulder. He flashed a glossy brochure in front of her face. “We’re closer than we thought.”
Once inside, they were confronted with more lines winding and disappearing into the horizon. The longest line was for China, the largest pavilion in the complex, called
The Crown of the East.
By the time they arrived at the Expo, the lines to the entrance were wrapped around the metal rails like a snake sunning in the weak May light. They waited in line with the busloads of villagers who had descended on the complex. A family in front of them gnawed on small chicken wings extracted from a paper bag, sucking the bones dry then dropping them on the ground. Behind them, an older woman unfastened a small boy’s flap in the front of his pants, allowing him to pee over the rails that guided them to the front. Knox kept his face buried in his brochure, unable to decide which country’s exhibit he wanted to visit first. Laurie told him she wanted to go to Thailand.
Once inside, they were confronted with more lines winding and disappearing into the horizon. The longest line was for China, the largest pavilion in the complex, called The Crown of the East. Tourists sat on blankets and folding chairs, snacking from the feasts they’d brought in, umbrellas held overhead to shield them from the sun. Above them was taped a sign in black letters: Waiting Time About 8 Hours.
“Why would they spend all day waiting to see the country they live in?” Knox muttered.
“Because they want to see possibility,” Laurie said. “That’s why I’m going to Thailand.”
They walked along the landscaped paths of the Expo, which were meticulously patterned with cushiony pink flowers that curved along a tiny concrete stream, until they arrived at Thailand’s pavilion. A line like the others wrapped and looped with no apparent beginning or end. At the entrance stood two immense statue warriors, one green and one white, guarding the entrance. A clear pool of water surrounded the sides of the pavilion.
“Do we have to go inside? You get the idea,” Knox said.
“I’m going in, I don’t care how long it takes.” She found the end of the line and prepared herself for the wait. “You don’t have to,” Laurie said. “I’ll be okay.”
He visored his face with his maps and sighed.
After two hours they entered an outdoor gallery surrounded by streams and fountains, screens of rainforests and manufactured lotus ponds. She walked through the Journey of Harmony, then A Harmony of Different tones, then A Harmony of Thais. She listened to music that sounded like women who were either very sad or very happy, then entered a temple and bowed in front of a green Buddha. In the last chamber, A Harmony of Thais, indigenous people draped her with heavy blankets dyed with berries and mountain flowers. At the exit was a bamboo hut café that smelled like the sea. Against the painted blue horizon, she drank coconut juice and ate a baby banana, tiny compared to the ones in the U.S. but still sweet and green, a little papery on her tongue.
When they emerged, Laurie said it was the best thing that had happened to her.
“It’s not what I thought it would be,” Knox said, as they dodged umbrella-wielding tourists protecting their skin from the fading sun. “But then, what ever is?”
They walked until they found a building with no line shared by small African countries like Mauritius and Eritrea and Gabon. They wandered the under-furnished stalls until it was late afternoon and time to find a way back to the hotel.
Knox had decided the best way back was to take the Shanghai Fastrapid, a magnetic levitation train, to the airport and then a taxi to the hotel from there. But when they arrived at the subway station, they discovered Fastrapid had closed an hour before, so they boarded the regular subway to the airport. Forty-five minutes later, still far from the airport, the subway stopped and shuttered its lights. An announcement blared through the speakers and everyone exited without complaint or resistance. Laurie and Knox emerged in an already darkened town and were suddenly swarmed by men desperate to take someone somewhere. Laurie extracted a card with the hotel’s name and address on one side, a small map printed on the other, and waved it in the air. One of the men plucked the card and after glancing at the address, nodded, flashing his index and middle finger, indicating his price for the fare. They agreed on 200 renminbi, about thirty dollars, and climbed into his car, which, Laurie was quick to notice, had neither a cell phone on the dashboard nor a GPS system like the taxis in Seoul.
The driver resumed talking, pointing at the arrow on the gas gauge, which was dipping toward E. He held three fingers up, then four.
He drove at first with confidence, speeding away from the outskirts of the town, deeper into the forests and undeveloped land. Twice they narrowly averted accidents, when large carts powered by tiny motorcycle contraptions appeared suddenly from hidden curves in the unlit streets. After about half an hour, the taxi driver slowed down, leaning over his steering wheel, peering at roads as if searching for invisible signs or markers that would show him the way. He stopped at one intersection and asked a man pulling a cart, who at first gestured wildly, then shook his head. He drove them further down the road until all buildings disappeared and they were surrounded by trees, and then the man spoke in a loud anxious voice, holding three fingers up, wanting more money.
“No way,” Knox said, shaking his head for emphasis.
“Just pay him,” Laurie said in a low voice. She regretted she’d allowed Knox to keep the larger bills because, as he’d argued, she was forever losing things.
“We don’t need him.”
The driver resumed talking, pointing at the arrow on the gas gauge, which was dipping toward E. He held three fingers up, then four. Knox shook his head. Then the driver pulled over and turned the car off. Knox took out his Expo map and a ballpoint pen from his front shirt pocket and began scribbling. “I’m reporting you to the authorities, you scallywag,” Knox said. The driver laughed, a sharp bark of one who has little to lose, and Laurie realized that the car was not his. She watched Knox write down what she read as gibberish, a code of numbers and letters she could not decipher. The driver continued laughing, beating his hand against the steering wheel. It was the laughing she could no longer take. Laurie opened the door.
Knox looked at her from inside the taxi. He was stooped, just a dark shadow from where she stood. “Get in,” he pleaded. He reached for his wallet.
“Maybe he’s the Misfit,” Laurie said. “He wants us to stay in the car so he can kill us in some field because he doesn’t believe in Jesus.”
Knox shook his head. “It’s just like this Paul Bowles story where this American is captured by some tribe in Morocco. They cut his tongue off, put him in a cage, and trot him around the desert.”
The driver turned on the engine.
“Or maybe,” she said, “it’s like a large book that we can’t read. Maybe this is the best moment of our lives, right now, even if we disappear.”
She reached for Knox’s hand and pulled him out of the car. She wrapped her arms around him, and Knox allowed the map he’d been clutching to fall to the pavement. The car sped away, leaving them alone in the dark.
They said nothing and began walking along the lampless road.
Sybil Baker is the author of The Life Plan, Talismans, and Into This World. Recent work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Prairie Schooner, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Collagist. A professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, she is on faculty of the first international MFA Program at City University of Hong Kong and the Yale Writers’ Conference. A MakeWork Artist Grant recipient, she is Fiction Editor at Drunken Boat.