A man I’ve never met
introduces me to a woman I’ve never met.
It’s all done over the phone.
A Chinese social media app.
Tim—that’s his English name—
texts me in English about our plans to meet
next Monday in Southern China.
His company—and my company’s partner—
has tasked him to accompany me
while I give a presentation.
Tim later texts
he’s not coming.
His company will send a colleague instead.
someone named Jody sends me an invite
I add the name to my app
An unmanageable number of Contacts.
S/He texts in Chinese
s/he will accompany
The app has a translator.
I don’t respond with words—although I assume s/he speaks English—
instead send an animation
two cute cartoon characters
quickly spin forward
revealing in their grasps
two fluffy letters
O and K.
The texts continue in this manner
regurgitating the same things Tim and I have already,
and which he has obviously not shared;
the time, the address, where to meet,
my arrival time.
I text her/him 1:10,
then send another GIF,
a photo of
a bug-eyed mad chemist
giving two thumbs up,
the background flashing
a one-second cartoon-loop
a bunny dancing.
There are Chinese characters imbedded down the side,
but the phone can’t translate these.
But it doesn’t matter.
And that’s that.
I put down the phone
and consider a moment,
how conveniently alone we’ve become.
So it’s my first time in Vadodora, formerly known as Baroda, which is indeed much easier to say. The plane lets us off onto the steaming tarmac and the blistering 110 degree winds pulse over me. I head through the one terminal building and pass the two conveyor belts: the joy of traveling carry-on. A drove of photographers and cameramen gather outside. One of the bowlers from the Indian national team is on the flight. I ask my hotel driver his name, but he says he doesn’t know.
Once checked into the Taj Gateway, I make my way to the pool and eventually locate a lounge chair not dolloped in bird shit. The squalid, bean-shaped tub is warmer than fresh pee. With goggles firmly suctioned over my peepers, I slither in. A few amoebalike strokes later and an attendant in white trousers emerges in my periphery. He calls out in greeting. I interrupt my lap to acknowledge him and then float on my back. But the encircling and swooping fowl and bats soon start making me nervous, so I wade to the edge of the pool where the man gleefully beams in wait.
“Hello.” He appears very pleased that I’ve swum over. “Is it possible to order something from the bar and have it brought here?”
“Oh yes sir. Anything is possible.”
“That’s great. What kind of cocktails do you have?”
“You’d like a Pepsi?”
“No no, something with alcohol. Do you have a bar menu please?”
“No no, something from the bar. I saw the bar in the lobby. Can you bring me the bar menu?”
“How about fresh juice?”
A second attendant emerges and scurries over. He nods to me and says, “hello sir,” and the two men then murmur and confer. The second one now pipes in.
“Sir, would you like a juice cocktail?” I remove my goggles, he grins nervously.
“Is it possible to have a drink sent over from the bar, you know, something with alcohol?”
“Oh yes sir. We can do that for you. What would you like sir?”
“I’d love a cocktail if that’s possible. Your other Taj properties have these great specialty cocktails. It would just be really nice to sit out here and have a drink.”
“Oh yes sir, I know. One moment sir.” He scampers off leaving me and the first attendant smiling at one another gormlessly.
“You swim very nice sir.”
I chortle, “No, not really, but thanks.”
“Oh no sir. Your swimming very nice, very nicely.” He is adamant.
“Well thank you. You should see me drink cocktails.”
The second man now trots back. He’s carrying two bottles of water. He crouches down and hands me one.
“No no, I don’t want water, but thank you.”
“Aren’t you thirsty sir? Vadodora’s very hot today.”
“It is, yes. Never mind. That’s okay.”
“OK sir, I’ll leave it over there.”
“That’s fine, thank you.”
The first man says, “Sir, one moment please. I go get the manager.”
“Sure, whatever, thanks.”
I wriggle over the side of the pool and slosh my way to the open-air shower. While hosing off the scum, a more senior man in a black suit gently approaches.
“Good evening sir.”
I must appear like a pudgy white cow caught in the rain, but with goggles round my neck.
“Oh hello, good evening.” I try to ignore the fact that he is formally pressed while I’m half-nude and drizzling. We politely address one another as if our exchange were within the perfect bounds of normality.
“Yes. I was wondering if I might order a cocktail, or something from the bar, and have it served here by the pool.”
“Yes, I understand sir, but I’m very sorry. You see, Gujarat is a dry State.”
There are eight lounge chairs at the front of the cigar store placed four in a row. Jeff and Mike sit facing one another both puffing fat stogies. Pete stands behind the counter tending the register with a cigar in hand. From the designs on the ring bands I can tell they’re smoking the same brand.
Mike says, “Pete, is that your favorite fuckin’ cigar?”
“Yeah, I love the fuckin’ Dominicana Fleur de Toros.” Pete looks up from the till and examines the cigar, rolling it back and forth between his fingers.
Jeff says, “Yeah, that’s a good fuckin’ cigaw.”
I enter the walk-in humidor and scan the rows of open cigar boxes, each laid display like a baby dangling its legs. Pete peers in.
“Can I help you with anythin’?”
“Yeah, I’m looking for a Maduro wrap in a robusto.”
“Aw, you know your cigars, ok.” He steps halfway in.
“You tried the Avos?
“You have the XO’s?”
“Aw, you really know your cigars.”
“I used to work for De La Concha in the city.”
“Aw,” Pete shouts out to Mike and Jeff, now joined by a third, much larger man.
“This guy worked at De La Concha. You know, in the City.”
“De La Concha?” Jeff sits up and shouts at us through the glass wall.
“Yeah,” I say walking out with my stout Maduro Avo, “I worked there in ‘96 for the Melendis.”
“Oh,” Jeff seems excited. His mullet bobs, his sunglasses shake in their wiry gold frames. “Lionel sold that place years ago. Mike, when did Lionel Melendi sell that place?”
“Oh,” Mike thinks, “Could have been oh six, oh seven.”
Ten minutes later it would be Dursos, the pasta place on 35th. Then Utopia Bagels. Who owned it; how long it’d been there; when they did renovations. Etcetera. We knock back expressos with Sambuca and slowly sip Black Label while smoking and bullshitting. It is boring and beautiful. This is home.
A critic once wrote about Raymond Carver that he does what any great writer does: he makes the strange seem familiar and the familiar seem strange. Returning to my childhood in Queens, a business errand turns into a philosophical and cultural assault.
I drift through New York like a ghost, dodging remnants from the past like the throngs of tourists at Times Square while en route to wait for 40 minutes to get a lunchtime table at the Carnegie Deli. Or traversing Queens time and time again to midtown on the F Train and walking back and forth to the Pakistani Consulate, which is not incidentally directly opposite Emanu-El Synagogue on East 65th.
A high school friend’s daughter’s sixth birthday house party, where after twenty plus years I reunite with an old childhood friend and an old ex-lover. She’s grown haggard and rotund and is looking after a toddler and married and with his two children half the week. Eric and I have a brief but intimate catch up. And hardly a word spoken with Kim, apart from greetings and goodbyes. “Be safe,” her final thought, spoken after an obligatorily parting embrace. And so, what was a lifetime ago a magically fabricated romance is now a salutation at a suburban Sunday buffet.
But that’s not what any of this is about.
He is sprawled out across the hammock on his back, his wife and grandchildren all watching, one of the girls talking to him while he listens and sways. His face shines as though he has never known such bliss. The day is bright, the park semi-crowded. I can tell from his buck teeth that he works with his hands. He swings like a pendulum, his thoughts drifting from the far past to the grandchildren before him. This man has toiled his decades to the bone, and though weathered, he is not broken. A faint glimpse of consciousness glimmers from within his gaze. He is a child again, a young man; a different life, another world.
On our way out of the park we walk passed the hammock and it is empty. My son and his two friends and their three mothers continue up the path, and I say I’ll meet up with them by the car. I sturdy the wide hammock underneath me before I fall in and look up at the trees. Embracing the jet lag, the fleeting fragments of past days set in. New York, China. And this is where I am.