In typical Chinese fashion, the hospitality entailed an onslaught of alcohol-fueled feeding frenzies with intermittent sightseeing, during which times we were corralled to take group and one-on-one photos with every combination of individuals present. Then whisked to the next meal.
One morning we awoke in a recovering haze at a hot springs outside of Liaoyang. The day before we had been drinking since noon. That afternoon in a private dining room in Anshan, we took turns toasting our 10-odd hosts for over four hours. The liver damage comprised three bottles of 110-proof local liquor and a crate of half-liter bottles of beer. In the lobby of the restaurant there was a tank off in a corner and underneath a spiraling marble stairwell, where inside two live seals flapped about and sniffed up with doughy glass eyes. Around the banquet table, however, the three of us were the creatures from the sea.
We were then carted off to make a two-hour dash to Liaoyang for a repeat of lunch. The trip was not unlike an ambulance plunging towards the ER. Dinner, however, inevitably proved abridged when after two more hours of booze guzzling Rich and I began to see double with near clarity. Coupled with my head whirling in my ears, I leaped from the table and bolted to the hotel. The last thing I remember was being on my back and half-dressed under blankets. I squinted up to eight-to-ten dim faces surrounding my bed and peering down. Lights out.
We left the hot springs without so much as seeing it or getting our toes wet, being catapulted across Liaoning Province into the border City of Dandong, which is wedged up the Yalu River across from North Korea. After a tamer, red-wine only North Korean lunch, we hopped onto a boat that putted us within a stone’s throw of the peninsula’s riverbanks. Along the shoreline was a shipyard with rundown industrial boats all bearing the North Korean flag. On shore, a scattering of men performed innocuous takes around oil drums from behind barbed wire. A couple of lone solders bearing machine guns dotted the embankment, none seeming to take notice of our boat or of us waving idiotically at them with cellphone cameras as we scudded passed.
And once again nothing seemed more obvious to us. It was that same thing we had known throughout the day, and every day, at that, and throughout the whole trip. The world of our youth was so very far away. But our lives had someone again unforeseeably converged. It was hard to process, and we knew it would be impossible to convey. It’s hard to feel and accept the transcendent yet succinct passage of time. It’s why I still haven’t gotten used to being sentimental. I think I must have held back tears when their airport bus finally drove off.