I got a hot shave and a haircut on the way to the bus station. As the razor skimmed my cheek, it shot a ginger stream of hair follicles into the barber's face.
"Fuck," he shouted in Chinese, "I'm choking on your beard!"
He wanted to know about the American Breast.
"There are big ones and small ones," I said.
What about the American Ass? It comes in many different sizes, I said. America is a very diverse country, I explained.
He took me into the back room for a scalp massage.
"How big is your pepper?" he wanted to know.
"That's a secret," I said.
"Secrets don't make friends. Tell me. It'll be our little secret."
"Um," I said.
"Okay, Mr. Laowai. Next time you come in, you can tell me how big your pepper is."
A hot shave and a haircut, a shampoo and a scalp massage, a lesson in Sichuanese: one U.S. dollar.
There were no buses left - it was already 7 PM - so I caught a communal minivan and we shuttled through the mist towards Chengdu. Already the drunk dials were pouring in. Seventy-five Americans with volunteer stipends to blow, gallivanting up and down the alleys of that big dusty construction site 180 kilometers to the west. I leaned forward in my seat to speed the minivan along. I was running four hours late. But, I thought, glancing at my reflection in the window, tussling my bouffant and palming the powdery baby-ass of my cheek, I was looking pretty damned good.
We pulled up to a gas station just outside of Chengdu and the driver seemed content to wait in line for two hours to refill his tank. I paid my fare, hopped out of the van, and flagged down a cab. I checked into the Kehuayuan Hotel around ten and on my way up to the room, someone snagged me by the elbow and the montage began. Such is memory. All the anxiety and nausea and shifting silences are erased. What remains is this montage, six minutes and 35 seconds long, to the tune of Al Stewart's Year of the Cat.
Pulsating neon, hot blue blowtorch blasts, jackhammers and bulldozers, dust and trampled cigarettes, motorbikes and vacant taxis. I think I'd better stay in tonight. Well, maybe just one drink. Up the stairs to a pleather wrap-around sofa in the corner. Tapping your toe against the brass footrail beneath the bar. Frosted steins and sinister shot glasses. A cloud of Rastafarians by the door and the ponytailed Frenchmen around the billiards table. The Chinese girls in their Groucho Marx specs. You asked the bartender if he had any Cure and he did. The married couples danced like they were merely dating. One more and we'll go home. You sent Dave out for another pack of Pandas. Pulling a five-kuai prayer from the depths of your corduroys, the bartender said it was alright and slid a shot of Jack your way. Amplifiers and instrument cases. Broken conversations in line for the men's room. You got Boston Joe to do a JFK impression. Levi did the national jig of Ethiopia while the Ripleys went Costa Rican on the dancefloor. You stole some Irish girl's drink and her man held you hostage until you'd given him the last of Dave's cigarettes. Strobe lights, camera flashes, tobacco hieroglyphics, the stubborn, unrelenting beat. The paternal warmth of watching two young kids make out for the first time, drunken bodies pressed against the Samsung AC Unit in the corner and you across the room wondering how you got so relatively old. What time is it, anyhow? One more and we'll go home. You ask the bartender if he has any Steely Dan and he does. A beer and a shot. Peanuts and sunflower seeds. The Sharpie graffiti on the bathroom walls. One more and we'll go home ...
And then the music fades out like the 1970's and you find yourself at the train station, bidding short-term farewells to people you will never see again. And then the long train ride back home, the countryside all rotting cement and flooded fields in the rain, a formaldehyde hangover squeezing vinegar out of your eyes, and you sitting there with a barfbag close at hand, wishing you'd never gotten so damned attached.