“You’re very handsome!” the driver repeated in Chinese, rolling the window down to let the tropically humid air in.
“Thank you,” I said again, without a clue how else to respond to such a statement. In the front seat, my supervisor spoke quickly with someone on the phone, and to my right, the female version of that guy with the red stapler from Office Space continued her monologue.
“But you know, growing up Thai way left a huge impression on me. Thai is my first language, you know. But I haven’t spoken it in fuck knows how long.” I smiled and nodded, waiting for the next bit. I had never been so interested in someone’s life story as this woman sitting next to me. She’d also come to China to teach English, and her accent hinted at Melbourne. “But my mother, you know, she was just so abusive. And you just have to cut those people off when it gets to be too much. At a certain point, you just have to say ‘Right!’” – here, she leaned in suddenly very close to my face – “I’m out, see ya later!” I leaned backwards reflexively to keep her face from running into mine.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. She leaned back toward the window and took a puff off the cigarette in her right hand.
“Oh no, love, there’s nothing to be sorry about. Why do you apologize so much?”
“Must be something earlier in your life you’ve been carrying. You know, it was only a couple of years ago I was finally able to forgive my mom for how much of a bitch she was.” I had no idea where this conversation was headed, but it was starting to make me panic a little. Still, I laughed. “And you know what? It’s impossible not to carry some of that shit with you. It’ll follow you for the rest of your life.”
“I sure hope—”
“That’s how my first husband was,” she said, plowing on. I couldn’t help but grin and waited for the story. “He was queer as a concrete parachute, but it was so grand.” I wasn’t sure if she meant queer as in gay, or queer as in weird. She wasted no time clearing up the ambiguity. “It’s my philosophy you should never, ever marry someone with whom you can… consummate the marriage,” she said, winking at me. “Know what I mean?”
“Oh! I love that!” I laughed.
“I thought I’d never recover after he passed. And what’s that bracelet you’ve got? Is that a pride thing?” she asked, looking at my rainbow-colored wristband.
“I figured,” she shot. I sucked my lips in. “Then you know how it is.” I tried to think of all the things that statement could mean and gave up.
“How were your folks when you told them? Have you told them?”
“Well, my mom and I are really close. It’s taken some time. But I haven’t had a real conversation with my dad in seven years.” Having told this story to hundreds of people already, it was easy to distill it into a couple of sentences. “But it doesn’t bother me. Maybe he’s a bit like your mom,” I offered.
“Well, fuck all!” She took another drag and threw the cigarette out the window. “That must be why you apologize so much.” I didn’t follow, but this fascinating woman was clearly not someone to argue with. “After my first husband died, or I guess my only husband since I never technically married again, I moved to New York and ran a business, you know.”
“So I know a thing or two about teaching, you know…”
The stories continued for half an hour straight as we made our way to a hospital in the city to get a full physical done, per government requirements.
“All women are just shit…
They all just compete for men and go behind your back first chance they get…
And then he left to work for the Thai king’s second cousin…
Growing up in Australia, we had to learn how to punch sharks in the face…
There is no way in cold hell I would be here by accident…
…and then she died! I’ve been trying to write a book…”
My neck was sore from looking to my right and nodding, and my throat was dry from gasping so frequently at the twists and turns of her life.
“Oh—“ I injected, “my name is Brandon.”
We’d crossed a long bridge into the city and were now weaving in and out of traffic like a drunk bee. On several occasions the car came to a complete stop to avoid head on collisions with cars driving on the wrong side of the road.
“I think I’m going to die here,” I told Julianne. She laughed loudly and brushed it off.
“Don’t worry, they know what they’re doing!” I breathed in deeply. We had arrived at the hospital.
In twenty minutes flat, with the help of our supervisor, we had gotten EKGs, x-rays, blood work, vitals, and eye exams, and were out in no time. I had to admire the efficiency of the doctors, but got an earful about the machine-like personalities of the nurses from Julianne on the way home.
Just the day before, while moving in, I sent a message to the only other person living in our building, Steven. Steven was Canadian and had been working in Nanchang, Jiangxi for the past 15 years. Julianne and I knew very little about him, except that he had once been married to a local woman and had two children, and lived two floors down from me. And that’s just as well, because here’re the only messages we shared:
Before coming, I’d been told there were many foreign teachers on campus, but it had become clear it was me, Julianne, and a Canadian Trump fanatic. It was going to be a long four months.