Originally published in Terracotta Typeweriter issue 9.
“I was married once,” David said. “Guys here, they’ve been married three, four times. Just once for me.”
He stopped eating, lit a cigarette. He shook another free from his pack, handed it to Jarrett and lit it for him. “Yeah,” David said with some smoke. “I was married once.”
They’d given their final exams yesterday and caught the first bus out of Wuhan. They were in Jingdezhen, a city famous for china, in Jiangxi province. They planned to spend a week seeing Jiangxi before heading south.
The restaurant they were in was a seafood restaurant with aquariums out front full of tortoises, crabs, fish and eels. Jarrett had at first joked that you could just point at what you wanted. Looking at the flayed fish before him, he wondered if that wasn’t too far from the truth.
“I met her in Beijing,” David said. There was a glass ashtray by Jarrett. David reached ahead and pulled it until it was about halfway between them. He flicked his ashes free. “I met her my first day there. My company transferred me there and first day, I run into her. Amazing, where your life takes you.”
Jarrett pointed his chopsticks at the fish head, with its eyes intact. “Just so you know: I’m not going to wrestle you for that. You can have it.”
“It’s for the guest of honor. That’s you, son.”
“I’ve been here two years. I’m hardly a guest anymore.”
David’s eyes flashed. He took a long drag, then said, “We were in Beijing for about six years. Her parents spoke no English, but they took good care of me. And they loved our children.”
“How many children did you have?”
“Two. One, now.”
“I’m so — ”
David was waving him away. “No, no. Just stop that. Shit happens, and that happened. I guess you could say it’s just what happens.”
“Still — ”
“And it’s appreciated.” David finished his beer, popped another. Jarrett was just getting done with his first.
“You know,” David said, “when I retired I got my TEFL certificate. I didn’t think of any other place but Beijing. First place I went was her parents. They were in their eighties then, and her brother was taking care of them. I brought them gifts…I was worried it might offend them. You know, it might be tacky.” He licked his lips. “Although they did not say anything, I knew they’d rather have her sitting in front of them than me. Can’t blame them.”
He took a long drink.
“I guess I thought that by going back to Beijing, I could somehow re-walk those paths I’d walked when I was young. What I didn’t know is that I was chasing a ghost who is much younger, and much faster than me. When you walk around the city, just about everything reminds you of back then, especially what’s changed. You wonder where the time has gone, and you realize it snuck out when you were busy looking the other day. You can’t get it back. Best you can do, I think, is to just pay more attention.”
He killed this bottle, popped another. Jarrett was on his second.
“So how long did you stay in Beijing the second time?”
“Little over a year. Then one day, I decided to come to Wuhan.” He laughed hollowly. “You were an accountant?”
“I was an intern. So I got the accountant his coffee.”
“You ever intend to become one?”
“Well…I have thought about taking the CPA exam.”
“That’s what I’ve heard.”
They drank. They drank the crate empty and David ordered another.
“Have you been to Wuhan before?” Jarrett asked.
“No,” David said. “The good thing about Wuhan was, it’s that I thought there were no ghosts here, and one day, I saw them.
“They were walking down the street, holding hands, a young foreign man and a young Chinese woman. I see them from time to time. I’ll stop, watching, trying to figure out where they’re going. I don’t know where, but I think wherever it is, it’s a place they want to go to. They know who I am and I can sort of remember the young man. I know if I go to where they’re going, then I’ll remember everything. But I don’t. Instead, I turn and head to my apartment with a beer.”
David looked away, drank. “So, ghosts? Don’t ever kid yourself. There are ghosts no matter where you go.”