*this short story was originally published in “Negative Suck.”
It’s 2008, about a week before the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. I’m 26 and I’m hopelessly confused about everything. The world is moving—China is showing off its power with pomp just as people are panicking over the global financial crisis.
I land in Shanghai for the first in several layovers from Fukuoka on my way to Miami. For the past three years I’ve called Nagasaki, Japan my home.
Yes, I am twenty-six, and I am about to make a terrible decision. But given the options at the time, it might have been the only decision: I would start a Ph.D program, try to finish a novel, and try to date my girlfriend in Nagasaki all at the same time.
I’m sitting in the airport restaurant trying to enjoy some dumplings and wrap my mind around these developments when I see him.
Who is he? Call him Melville.
He’s chatting up the waiter in broken Mandarin and trying to sound cool, wearing a leather jacket with spiked hair. At first I think he reminds me too much of Tyler Durden from Fight Club, and I shake my head. Finally, he pretends like he’s just noticed me and comes over and sits with me.
He doesn’t introduce himself. “You know a layover in Shanghai coming from Fukuoka makes no sense whatsoever. You’re going the wrong way!”
“Gas prices,” I reply. “Chinese airlines were the cheapest way to go.”
“Huh,” he combs his fingers through his spiked hair. “You know this is a stupid idea, right?” he says. “You’re spending the prime of your life reading useless books, taking tests, and writing useless papers when you could be seeing the world.”
Melville is many things: a lover, a traveler, a writer, a bum―but, above all, and contrary to his own vision of himself, he is a schemer. Melville had laid many plans, some which had come to fruition, some which had not―that summer he wallowed in a small town in Mexico where he studied Spanish and pined for some girl he had met in a village in Belize. Why was he here? It probably had something to do with his next scheme, something that no doubt involved duping me into doing the exact opposite of what was good for me.
“So I should learn to speak broken Chinese and get a weird haircut and pretend to be someone I’m not?”
“Who do you think is pretending to be someone they’re not? It’s not me. Here you are about to start this plan: a PhD program, a novel, and you get to keep your girlfriend who lives twenty-five hours away. What an idiot. You should be more like me. I don’t believe in novels or PhD programs. They don’t exist. Even if they did, they would be affronts to nature. Big lumbering things that disrupt everything else in their path. Have you ever read the reports by the World Commission on Dams?” He knows I have.
“Dams,” he continues. “Big idiotic things that raise everyone’s hopes and ruin everything for everybody. Better to sign a one-year contract with a language school you’ve never heard of somewhere in Asia. Better to take up a temporary job somewhere doing anything. Start with something small, and if it becomes a five year project on its own, well that’s okay. There are places you’ve never heard of that are calling you right now. All you have to do is stop following carefully laid plans.”
We sat and ate dumpling together and drank beer. He spoke mostly and I listened.
He was right in many ways, and wrong in many more. He was right in a sense about the PhD program and the novel. I can never remember precisely why I thought I could write a novel, finish a PhD program, and keep my long-distance girlfriend. The motives and machinations will cease to matter. What I’ll remember are the times things all got off track, when I was hanging out with friends in Tokyo looking for a get well card for my mother, and then suddenly I realized I had two really good friends. I’ll remember conversations with my language teachers. I’ll remember going to the Christmas Tree Festival in Busan and it snowing. I’ll remember how in Busan there was a Korean guitar player playing Japanese songs. I’ll remember watching the Sound of Music with my niece in Melbourne, Florida. I’ll remember getting to my university at five in the morning, my mind half asleep in the lounge area and I’m dreaming not of plans but of existing on a giant surfboard in the ocean somewhere. Melville isn’t there. Melville isn’t me. But I feel like I’m slowly becoming him.
And then I’m sitting in Shanghai eating dumplings and drinking beer. Melville’s there and he’s not. It doesn’t matter. Even if he doesn’t think so, things will turn out okay.