For Exit Seek Back Toward Your Behind

Neil would reason that he fell so hard that day because of five texts and two pictures he had sent to Laura while sitting in a Starbucks. The five texts and two pictures, he would come to tell himself, were the beginning of a sentence he would finish three months later.

The park below him was filled with bamboo shoots and spring leaves, a varied row of skyscrapers standing behind it, and he took a picture of it on his phone. He opened WhatsApp and sent the picture to Laura. After sending the picture, he sent her the texts:

— In China randomly

— Here with work for a week

— Shanghai looks like if the 80s’ idea of the future came to life. Lots of laser-beams and weird computer animation.

He watched as Laura began typing a response. She stopped. Then she started typing again. She did this three times, finally not sending anything. Laura hadn’t spoken to him in ten weeks.

Sitting on the rooftop patio of a Starbucks near his hotel, he unconnected, then reconnected to the Wi-Fi. He watched three emails rhythmically show up in his inbox. Before coming to China, Neil had tried installing apps on his phone that would let him use Facebook while he was there; none proved effective. He opened WhatsApp and sent a text to his friend Ross. He refreshed his email. Constantly refreshing things was a self-diagnosed O.C.D. tendency Neil struggled with—a kind of latter-day flagellation that he found to be one of his most boring qualities.

Neil tossed his head back to an overcast sky. The patio oversaw The People’s Park, Shanghai’s largest park that looked like a wading pool of green in the middle of the city. Calling any part of Shanghai the “middle” seemed misleading to Neil. High-rise buildings stood as far as the leaden air would allow. You could be dropped anywhere, look around, and feel like you were exactly in the center of something big and remote, spangled with neon signs and fluorescent light. Shanghai felt unreachably attractive because it left you behind and it was your job to catch up.

He opened Twitter knowing nothing would load, and checked to see if Ross had texted him back, or Laura. Alone on the roof, he walked over to the railing. The sounds of motorbikes and a radio playing tinny Chinese music. “Hashtag Shanghai Haze,” he said out loud. The sun never came out; the infamous Shanghai Haze would only simulate the memory of where blue skies could be.

Neil reasoned the connection to the Internet was so unreliable in China that Laura’s reply probably wasn’t going to come through. He sent her:

— If you reply I probably won’t get it because Internet is bad here

He paused, then,

— If you don’t reply that’s fine though, no worries

He remembered how Laura would put her phone on her face and make him call the phone until the vibration against her nose made her sneeze or the sensation became unbearable. Looking through the photos he had taken earlier that day, he sent her a picture of a sign in poorly translated English that read: FOR EXIT SEEK BACK TOWARD YOUR BEHIND. If taken out of context, Neil thought, that would make an okay poem. He sent the picture to her without a caption, then turned off his Wi-Fi.

Neil had been brought to China with his company because he was a “dynamic asset” to the app developer he worked for. On his only day off he decided to go out alone to take in Eastern culture unbothered. Aside from two childhood trips to Mexico, other than that Neil had never traveled outside of America. Still, he had enjoyed the long plane ride, learning Mandarin phrases, applying for his visa. He found that nothing renders twenty-six years of mild bodily abuse quite like a passport photo. Looking out at the sprawling intersection in front of the Starbucks, he felt small, but smiled.

Neil had faith in the world. China would be the perfect place for him to blow to pieces the stern, unwelcoming vision the West had about the East. He spent that day wandering through the city’s trendy coffee shops and moss-covered alleyways. At a local gallery he spoke to a photographer named Cassie. She had just come back from a winter in Yunnan, photographing the farms surrounding the town she grew up in. He visited the Confucius Temple, hidden away behind sand coloured row houses left behind by French colonialists. He took pictures on his phone of koi fish swimming in the reflection of the temple’s red and white pagoda. People were not exactly cold; instead they were reserved. It was a society that made you feel like a perfect outsider, but was willing to help if you asked. Each person who quietly gave him directions was piece of evidence he would take back home. He would use that person’s kindness to say, “It’s not like what you think.”

At least there wasn’t the same need for constant, deprecating apology that existed in America. Restaurants simply served food, economic before aesthetic. An elderly woman sang loudly along with her radio on the sidewalk. Butchers hung the whole chicken, the whole duck, the whole pig up in the window. There was an honesty in the way the city worked that appealed deeply to Neil. Throughout his life he would frequently acknowledge, usually while lying in bed looking at dark, that he was either very hopeful, or very fucked.

Beyond the Starbucks was The People’s Park. Neil took a picture of seven women wearing fleece sweaters and doing Tai chi. Settling on a bench beneath narrow pines trees he watched them for several minutes. He wanted to post the picture on Facebook when he got home: “Old people doing Tai chi every morning in the park.” He was thinking about what the caption of the picture would be—maybe he would make it more expressive than that. “A lifestyle of thoughtfulness.” Walking away from the bench he spent the next two minutes composing what exactly his Facebook post would say.

He was about to exit the park onto Shanghai’s biggest tourist strip, East Nanjing Road when young Chinese man came up to him.

“Take our picture?” he motioned over to some girls he was with, who were posed with Nanjing in the background, ready to take a photo. The young man was smiling, and his English accent was one of the best, comparatively, Neil had heard all day.

“Sure,” Neil said, “No problem.” He took the man’s cell phone and took three photos of them standing together, holding up peace signs.

The man came back over, “Thank you so much! Thank you. Do you want a photo?” He motioned towards Neil’s phone, offering to take a picture for him.

“No, that’s fine,” Neil said, nodding politely. He was taken with how the three of them, all about Neil’s age, or earlier in their twenties, had matching expressions. He imagined them all running on the same facial expression-generating program, or face-algorithm. He realized this was a weird thought to have.

“Where you from?” The taller of the two girls stepped forward. She had on a yellow pea coat and blue Ugg boots. She also had a good English accent. Her mouth stayed slightly open after she spoke, as though to physically embody the question mark at the end of her sentence.

“United States.” Neil felt compelled to say this pleasantly, as if avoiding a mutual secret. They all energetically started saying—what Neil could assume was—“United States” in Chinese.

Laughing, the man asked, “America! You’re from America?” Neil said yes, and they all agreed that they liked America very much. The other girl, the shorter of the two, avoided looking at Neil’s face, but would smile childishly at his jacket, his shoes, the air existing on the peripheries of his head.

“What city are you from?” the young man asked.

“I’m from New Jersey.” He spoke eagerly.

They all erupted, Neil included, with a mutual fondness for New Jersey: its closeness to New York City, its beaches, just the name “New Jersey” was pleasant.

“Like Big?” the girl in the yellow coat implored him, “In Big starring Tom Hanks! That movie is in New Jersey, is it not?” Neil was warmed by their interest in the place he was from. He felt the vastness of the world close in and fold over into something small and papery.

“Where are you all from?” he asked. The group explained to him that they were students on holiday from university in Beijing. “Hold on,” Neil interrupted them, “I didn’t get your names.” There was a brief pause. “Sorry,” he tried to be clearer, “My name is Neil. What are your names?” The three faces watching him lit up again. They said “Neil” a lot; they agreed it was a good name.

“My name is Shan,” said the girl in the yellow coat. Neil noticed her small, expressive hands pulling at the buttons of her shirt. “I’m Shan,” she continued, “and these are my friends, Andy and Jinghua.”

“But call me July,” the shorter girl cut in, “My friends call me July, like the month.”

Andy continued to tell Neil about how the three of them had a week off school, a break in the middle of their spring semester. They had come to Shanghai for a festival, which Neil forgot the name and purpose of. Andy said they had already been in Shanghai five days. “We went to the best party last night,” he said, “At a big club. So fun, it was massive. Drinking so much!” The three laughed amongst each other. “You been to Shanghai clubs yet?” Andy asked. Neil said he hadn’t, he was here on business.

“Oh, business trip!” Shan smiled, “I thought maybe you were visiting your girlfriend.”

Neil tried to stop her, and clarify to all of them that he did not have a girlfriend. “No, no I don’t have—”

Shan talked over him, “What does your company do here in Shanghai?”

“We make apps for phones. We’re meeting with this Chinese company this week.”

“You seem young for a business trip,” July added in, only just loud enough to be heard over Shan and Andy.

“Do I look that young?” Neil asked. Shan sort of hopped and kicked the ground with her blue Uggs. She looked at him, pulling her hair back behind her ears. Watching her, Neil asked, “How old do you guys think I am? Guess my age.” They guessed. Shan guessed twenty-two. “I’m twenty-six. Close though.”

“You have a baby face under your beard,” Shan said, looking over to the buildings across the park, her own face bright.

“Most Chinese men would shave the beard,” Andy added, “They would not leave it like that.”

Their conversation went on easily, warmly, for another fifteen minutes. Neil would lapse into moments of watching himself from the outside. He saw them, standing in the sidewalk, by the park, talking and connecting. The image of a bowl filling with warm water passed through his mind several times. They asked Neil what he had thought of China so far. This sent Neil on an impassioned tangent about Eastern cultural difference, the logical lines of Chinese architecture, and of the resourcefulness of Shanghai taxi drivers. At one point he may have heard himself say, “Honestly, maybe the idea of the individual really is overrated,” but he couldn’t remember. No one had an answer for Neil’s impassioned tangent. Andy stepped forward and said, “We’re just about to leave. We’re going to a teahouse. But, maybe you want to come with us?”

“It would be so fun!” Shan put a hand on the arm of Neil’s jacket. Then, looking at her hand placed there, she said, “It’s a ceremony they do in Shanghai. Tea is very special here, and they do presentations in the teahouses. Traditional in the Chinese culture.”

“So you watch them make the tea, and stuff?” Neil asked.

“It’s very beautiful,” Shan replied, “The whole thing, it’s art in China.”

“Most Western tourists don’t see it,” Andy explained to him, “It’s mostly Chinese who want to go, but we would love to share with you.”

“Yeah, let’s do it.” Neil agreed without hesitation. He was happy. He had assumed spontaneous experiences such as this were reserved only for Australian backpackers hunting down the best MDMA in Copenhagen. Neil thought overdosing on MDMA in a Chinese teahouse would be a disrespectful but memorable way to die. Or something.

Shan, Andy and July took Neil through side streets and across pedestrian overpasses. They asked him more questions about America, impressed by any answer Neil had to give. He quickly became disoriented as the four of them flew through the inner workings of metropolitan Shanghai, down alleys, through atriums.

Neil had learned about Shanghai malls two days prior. Essentially every building in the downtown of the city was a mall on the inside. Malls were referred to as markets, and each market—a ten-story maze of glass walls and escalators—was devoted to a specific product. There was a market for cameras, a market for purses, and an entire mall dedicated to cellphone cases. The teahouse was in one of these markets. As they were walking, Neil asked them how social media works in China.

“I had an Instagram,” July said dryly, “Instagram was only here shortly. I liked it. My pictures were popular, but I’m on Weibo now.”

While standing on an escalator, Shan turned around and looked down at Neil, who was on the step behind. Her black hair fell in strokes around her cheeks and over her shoulders. She looked at him, and then laughed, then was silent again. After a pause she said, “Tell me more about New Jersey.”

“What do you want to know?”

“I think I’d like to go there one day. Do you like it?”

“Yeah, I guess,” he looked up to the skylight four stories above them, smiling despite himself. Her round face stayed unconvinced and encouraging. Saying, “Well, Shan, I suppose the grass is just neon fucking green then, isn’t it?” might make her think he was an acrimonious crab—sarcasm makes the hardest words to translate. Instead he surrendered to saying, “It’s nice, but if you’re going to visit America, it shouldn’t be to see Jersey.”

He looked back, and found her face hadn’t moved. She said, “I remember in Big with Tom Hanks, all the houses were so nice and they rode in yellow American school buses. Did you have those yellow buses growing up?” Neil could see the thought of the school bus lighting up her face. They were both thinking about yellow school buses in a mall in Shanghai. Neil imagined their brains file-sharing a stock image of a school bus with its stop sign out.

“Oh yeah, we all rode those!” He added, “Guess I never realized they were just an American thing.”

They were stepping off the escalator and rounding the corner to get on another escalator when Shan asked, “So you must have a girlfriend?”

For the first time since meeting, Shan’s Chinese accent frustrated Neil. They r and l sounds in girlfriend were hard for her, and he hated how she mangled the word.


“Really?” asked Shan, with overly animated surprise.

“Well, I did. For, like, a while. We split up, though.”

“Not together anymore?”

“No, no we’re not together.” The echoes in the mall grew louder.

“Too bad.”

They were standing next to each other on the escalator. She looked across to his shoulders and chest, and watched his body in silence for several moments. Neil felt like she was checking to make sure he was still breathing. Like when you wake up in the night and look to make sure your dog is still alive at the end of your bed, thought Neil.

“Woof,” he said.

“Huh?” Shan looked up at him.

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

She nodded, yes. Her boyfriend lived in Shenzhen—where she was from—and they didn’t see each other much. “He’s not very funny,” Shan feigned laughter, “But he is exemplary.” Neil figured the use of the word “exemplary” was a bad translation. At the top of the escalator Andy turned around to tell them that they were almost there.

The teahouse was located on the third floor of a mostly vacant market, down a long, grey hall. At the end of the hallway there was a desk. On the desk was a fake bonsai tree and one of the golden, waving cats Neil never quite understood. An older woman spoke to July quietly, under the gaze of two Buddha posters, framed and hung on the drywall. A rotating fan hummed somewhere. The older woman motioned for them to follow. She talked in Chinese with July, who led them down another hallway. Along that corridor were shelves with boxes of tea for sale, interspersed among framed pictures of Shanghai in the 1940s, and coy girls smiling from behind painted fans and cherry blossoms.

“These people will only be able to speak Chinese,” Shan whispered to Neil. “It’s okay though, we all translate for you.”

A lacquered table took up most of the space in the room. The wallpaper was yellow, with images of cranes flying through inky clouds and snow-capped mountains. They settled into the seats around the table. Later on, in Neil’s memory of the room, he would recall daylight coming in from behind where he was seated, but he couldn’t recollect if there was a window, or not. The daylight seemed impossible, but true. Then again, Neil would come to think, that could be said of the whole experience in that room.

On the table were tiny statues of fish and horses. Each person had a rolled wet towel on a wooden plate placed in front of them. The room tasted of incense and lemon-scented surface cleaner. A woman entered from a sliding door hidden in the wall beside Neil; her red silk dress held stiffly around her body.

“The tea server,” Shan whispered to Neil.

He hadn’t noticed she was sitting next to him, but he liked the modest touch of Shan’s breath on his neck. The tea server had to sidestep and push to get in behind the far side of the table, into a depression in the wall where her seat was. She gave them an offhand bow and began speaking. Whether or not she realized that Neil was different from the other three, he would never know; she showed no signs of computing his status as Resident Alien, Likely Capitalist, McDonald’s Imbiber. He was relieved.

“What’s she saying?” he leaned into Shan.

“Oh,” she said, in a hushed voice, even though Andy and July were talking over the server, “Um,” Shan frowned to work out the translations, find the right words, “She is saying where the teas we will be tasting have come from. She is telling us that they are all used for different things…” she listened, “Some for health, for hospitality… She says some are used as love making tea.” Then Shan laughed and said something to the tea server in Chinese. The server responded by sucking on her teeth and smirking, without looking up from the hot plate she was setting up. The tea was served in a shallow glass cup, the size of an apricot. There were to be eight kinds of tea served, and each round had its own glass cup.

“She’s saying this first tea is grown near the low Himalayan Mountains. In the far north. It’s good for hosting, for guests. It is light, like tasting, um… Tasting like mint?” Shan watched the server as she translated to Neil. It looked like she was intending to speak to him, but someone had faced her the wrong way. He imagined that she couldn’t remember what his face looked like, so was talking to the nearest person who might have the face she’d forgotten was Neil’s. He felt happy watching her. Fuck, he thought.

As the server got the next round of tea ready, she looked at Neil and said something to the group that made them laugh.

“She says you have small face,” Shan covered her mouth to giggle, “She says all white people have very, very small faces.”

The next round of tea was poured from the server’s glass teapot into each person’s cup. The liquid was a sandy shade of orange that reminded Neil of potted plants. It tasted of citrus, ginger and cumin. He told the server this tea was his favourite. She nodded in the weary way a child does when asked by an adult if they understand what marriage or divorce or death means.

“The next tea we try is for good luck,” Shan said to Neil, “It is some kind of luck tea.” Neil smiled at her encouragingly. She asked, “Do you believe in luck?”

He was surprised by the stark tone of her question, but found it human and intimate. He moved closer to her, “I guess… I don’t really know.”

“China loves luck. Every other thing is named ‘luck,’” she looked down at her hands on the table, “I feel like here, sometimes, we’re always told to work hard, hard, hard—you know?—but then, if anything good happens to us, it’s just a matter of luck.”

Neil considered saying to her: “I was lucky to have met you” but, realized that was a dumb thing to say. He gave that sentence a two star rating out of five, so instead he said, “Do you like living in China?” He gave that sentence a three and a half star rating out of five, still pretty dumb.

“I do. I like it here, but sometimes it’s hard. China wants everyone to work together, to make a life together.” She frowned. “But there isn’t a lot of honesty. People can forget to tell themselves the truth. In school, at home, I work hard to make a life where I am—so do all young people here. But, if I am honest, I think I want to get out.” Her face lowered, and emptied like a bowl of dry rice being poured into water. Neil nodded furiously, trying to tell her he understood everything she was saying, that she didn’t need to worry about bad translations or star ratings because she was making so much sense. She continued slowly, “I don’t know why I say this to you.” Shan consciously pulled her face back together, finding strength in a faint smile. “But, well . . . If you get a person older than me to talk about the Beijing student protests, they will tell you all men came together. They worked to make a better home for themselves. They celebrated fighting for a better country. But now, I think, young people want new life, and more. They work to get away. They work to get free of where they came from. And I don’t think that is a bad thing. Sometimes you have no choice. No, it’s not bad. I’m just tired of feeling like I’m saying lies.” Her thumb bullied the side of her teacup. Neil wished she would look at him to give him an easier way in, but her eyes tethered her to the table.

“I think you’re being really honest right now. And to a total stranger! You’re very honest, Shan.” Her face darkened meekly when he said her name. Neil watched her mouth hang open, physically embodying the question mark of a sentence she was trying not to say.

Neil remembered Big had been playing on the laptop that sat between him and Laura, one week before she moved out of their apartment in New Jersey. The blue light from the screen pinned them up against the headboard. Looking back on those final nights with Laura, Neil felt skeptical of the moments he rated between “good” and “neutral-good.” He had enjoyed himself, so unknowingly close to the end: watching movies in bed; cooking scallops on a stainless steel pan while Laura read him an article she was working on; smiling when she called him on her lunch break to tell him that she had ridden the train to work next to a man with six pencils shoved in his ears. The memories were something false now—they had to be. Right? Laura, in between those moments, must have been composing the words she would offer Neil on the night she admitted things would end between them. A period of life had been stained by an unhappiness that wasn’t his. He pictured this as spilling oil onto the open pages of a book; it was dirt being tracked through a carpet. He hated feeling like he had lived a happy, oozing lie. Watching Big in bed, he asked Laura, “Would you say that autumn is the best season?”

Laura gazed at the screen, “Yeah, I would say that.”

“Me too.” He felt her foot reach out to touch his knee under the sheet. He thinks he remembers that her foot felt very warm.

“Neil?” Shan turned her face sideways, and was looking up at him, “Sorry, was that confusing? I don’t know why I said that.” Neil’s heart missed one beat, a horrible sucking feeling, and he looked back to Shan.

“No, sorry. I spaced out.” He surveyed her face, tried to save its likeness to a hard drive. Drag and drop, he thought. Control-shift-S to save as a new document. “I think what you said was really thoughtful,” he continued, “It actually sounds exactly what it’s like to be in America. Working to get somewhere, literally anywhere but where you are now. But then, never admitting that you’re anything but totally satisfied.” Shan smiled in agreement, and then went to drink her tea. The glass cup was invisible in her hands.

After the presentation was finished, the cheque was brought and July suggested they all split the cost equally. Somehow the question of money had never come up in Neil’s mind. He concluded that it was foolish for him to have thought the students were treating him, and that his time with them was well worth the cost. Andy and Shan put down their money and passed the bill to Neil. He looked at the Chinese characters dashed in blue pen, then looked at the total circled at the end of the receipt.

“What we each pay is written at the bottom,” Andy told him from across the table.

His share was ¥1500. Neil did the mental math. Five hundred Yuan was roughly $240 US dollars. He wondered what about the ceremony could have cost so much. Trying to hide his confusion, his furrowedness that hid disappointment within surprise, he reached into his wallet. Andy gently reminded him that Westerners don’t usually go in for traditional tea ceremonies, but wasn’t Neil glad that he had? Yes, Neil was. This was not an industry outfitting for tourists, fabricating hospitality. This was not Made in China; this was China. The tea they had consumed was a cultural expense. The monetary cost of the time spent together was never spoken out loud.

Neil was led out of the teahouse, down the halls and through markets. Suspended on an escalator Shan asked Neil to take a picture with her. She held out her phone in front of their faces. He looked at her in the screen. Shan tilted her chin down, and looked up at the camera though widened eyes. His own face was next to hers, smiling, bending down to meet her on the step in front of him. She took the picture, making a peace sign with her other hand. Peering over her shoulder, Neil caught a glimpse of the photo as Shan looked down at her phone. His own face was distressingly unrecognizable. It was strange to know that his image would exist in her phone long after he had gone. He thought of it showing up on a corner of the Internet years later as he read through a Lonely Planet review of the New Jersey Botanical Gardens. Shan tucked her phone into the pocket of her yellow coat.

“You should send me that picture. I’d love to have it,” Neil said, instead of asking to take another photo on his phone. Shan nodded and held out her hand. Neil stumbled to dig his phone out of his back pocket. He watched her fingers pad against the screen.

“I don’t have Facebook, or anything like that,” she said as she typed.

“I know,” Neil said too quickly for her to hear.

“But email me, okay?” She tossed her face up brightly to meet his, handed back the phone, and walked off the escalator. Neil was already composing the subject line of his email. He wanted to stay in touch. He wanted to know Shan. He thought of how when he was a child having a pen pal was a big deal, but no one actually had one. Pen pals were a coveted urban myth of the New Jersey 8-12 year old demographic. He saw Shan run to catch up with July. The girls held hands, and Shan said something that made Andy and July both laugh. She looked back at Neil and reached out her palm, motioning for him to walk with them. Neil remembers feeling Shan’s hand move between his elbow and ribs. Her holding his arm quietly as they reached the street.

Neil came back to China three months later. Things had gone well, and his software company was going to partner with the Shanghai office to develop a Chinese equivalent to an instant messaging app where users send each other photos, and upon the receiving user opening the photo it disappears forever. Neil once again found himself walking in The People’s Park, this time through summer humidity that clung to his body like bath water. Mackenzie, another young employee of the company who had travelled with him from Newark, had joined him that afternoon to see the city.

“This is where I met that group of students the last time I was here,” he explained to her as they rounded the corner leading to Nanjing Road. “The teahouse was just over there somewhere,” he gestured vaguely to the group of buildings that ran along the east side of the park. Truthfully, he couldn’t remember where they had taken him. Neil retold the story of that afternoon to Mackenzie as they walked. He explained how he was stopped by Andy, and how easy their conversation had been. He had sent an email to Shan as soon as he got back to his hotel that night. Three days passed without a response. A month went by, and Neil reasoned that with Internet security what it was Gmail would not let an email come through from an obscure Chinese address. It had gotten lost in the locks, sentries, and safeguards of cyber communication. He wondered frequently about what she replied, and thought of the picture of the two of them on the escalator. Just like he did as a child, he prayed to the God of Pen Pals to send him a divine message. None came. The 21st Century answer to radio static: endlessly, and pointlessly, refreshing a webpage.

As they left the park a woman asked Mackenzie if she would stop to take a photo of her family. They were Chinese and visiting Shanghai from one of the farther provinces. Mackenzie talked happily with the daughter, who looked about sixteen. She was very keen to ask about America and learn what Mackenzie thought of China. Neil spoke with the girl’s mother and father.

“Are you both models? You’re so beautiful!” the mother said happily.

Neil explained that they were in Shanghai on business, and that he was glad to be there a second time. They said that they had come on vacation to Shanghai as a graduation gift for their daughter, who had finished high school that past spring. Mackenzie talked to the girl about what high school in China was like and where she wanted to go to university. Eventually the father motioned that they should be getting on. Mackenzie and the daughter shared a joke, already filled with closeness, when the mother stepped towards Neil and asked, “You know, we are about to go to a tea ceremony. Very close by. It is traditional Chinese culture.”

“It’s really beautiful! You can only see it in Shanghai,” added the girl.

“Would you like to come with us?”

Neil lost expression in his face. Mackenzie was looking to him, smiling uncomfortably. He could see her eyes trying to search his for a reaction. He heard the sound of a helicopter flying over them, and his t-shirt hung heavy on his shoulders.

“You know, we should be going,” Neil said, looking at Mackenzie, avoiding the family. “Thank you, though.”

They walked away in silence. He pulled out his phone and checked the time, unlocked the phone, watched the home screen, looked at a text message he received that morning from his brother. He locked the phone, but checked the time again before putting it back in his pocket.

Mackenzie had been watching him as they walked. “Wait, oh my god,” she laughed. “So, that was just how those students picked you up last time? You had no idea?” Neil nodded, raising his eyebrows and shoulders to make an “I got fucked by mild criminals” expression. They continued walking down Nanjing Road to the river. Across the water stood the Bund, yet another downtown of Shanghai. The buildings rose into a haze, twisting and pushing each other out of the way. Neil couldn’t tell how tall the buildings really were. As he and Mackenzie continued around the city, he worried he would see Shan, or Shan would see him. He figured this was unlikely, but avoided looking at people’s faces in the street.

Neil thought of the poorly translated sign he had seen on his last trip, the one he had sent Laura a photo of. He never got a message back from Laura because he deleted WhatsApp from his phone shortly thereafter. Whether or not Laura replied became unimportant to him. The photo of the sign remained important. There was no shortage of bad translations in China, but something about “FOR EXIT SEEK BACK TOWARDS YOUR BEHIND” disturbed Neil. The sentence was too frantic and searching, with the words tumbling over each other, scrambling for a way out. Reading the sign instilled panic in him. By trying desperately to communicate, the language had destroyed itself. It made no sense. Could words commit suicide by purposefully arranging themselves in sentences that didn’t mean anything? The sign was probably still hanging there. No one would have changed it, simply because they wouldn’t know it needed fixing. Neil thought of the person who had sat at a computer, ignorant of their mistakes.  

Copyright © 1999-2018 Juked