I wanted to write a memoir but the connective tissue of the memoir didn’t interest me. I wanted to render memories that would pop up like mushrooms and quickly vanish. I owe much to where I was raised, in a black neighborhood where people talked to each other and spent time on the porch and on the corner, as did my brothers and their friends as they smoked weed, drank Mickey Big Mouths and Heinekens, and talked all the time about the insanity of Vietnam, nuclear war, and H.P. Lovecraft, and from there they’d segue into the adventures of the many memorable characters in the neighborhood. I tried to do that here. A new installment will appear here every Saturday this and next month.
Jinghuan possesses the ability to get me to do things I wouldn’t often do but she’s not demanding at all, just diabolically clever. She suggests, and it seems reasonable until I get around to considering what she was suggesting and soon I’m doing it and I realize I’ve been had; I had no choice.
Love will do that to you.
She suggested that we go on a short vacation in the beautiful countryside forty miles outside of Shanghai where she’d do this mountain run with friends from many running clubs and I could run it too. I really couldn’t get out of it unless I could break a leg or something.
I whined and I pouted but Jinghuan gave me many beautiful smiles and kisses on the cheek, and I caved.
I made my concrete non-negotiable demand: “I’m not going to die falling off a cliff. I refuse to die in some silly macho accident.”
“I don’t think you’ll die,” she said with some sincerity.
Many expats were all hellbent on this little mountain race: there were quite a few tour buses lined up to take us into the hinterlands. It was a beautiful drive, and the roads were safe and not crazy steep, and the mountains were lush with verdant trees and rock formations tastefully strewn about as though God had good taste. I recognized some of her friends and everyone was in good mood, even joyful. As great a city Shanghai is, the countryside was where you needed to be to breathe clean air and to truly get away. When Jinghuan suggested that I come on the run with her, I graciously declined. And she graciously asked me again. “No, no,” I said. “I have writing to do or something.”
One moment of weakness and I would be on a precipice looking down from a great height wondering how this happened to me and the answer would be, Jinghuan happened to me.
The party the night before was fun was better than I expected, with decent food and many attractive expats and beautiful Chinese women and handsome Chinese men, and many good-looking Brits and Europeans. They all seemed intent on hooking up before the mountain race in the morning.
The next day at sunrise we were up hurrying to the start line.
It looked like a damn army of runners, raring to hit that mountain trail that to my eyes seems to go straight up into a bamboo forest on a narrow vertical trail.
I wasn’t going up that.
Jinghuan, though, was straining to start. When the starter pistol fired, I began snapping photos of the stampede up the mountain side and in what seemed a fleeting minute a couple hundred runners had disappeared into the Bamboo Forest.
I felt relieved that I wasn’t one of them negotiating tricky terrain on a steep trail and an abrupt fall if they slipped. I was glad I had the morning to myself to explore this beautiful village, which I did, crossing a beautiful foot bridge with railings so low it would be too easy to fall into the slow-moving stream. The homes weren’t the beautiful traditional homes I had seen in the ancient village, mostly new and multistory as you’d see in any affluent country retreat where there’s money to build them. After shooting photos for a while, I began to feel guilty. Jinghuan had challenged herself to do something arduous while I was walking about taking photos of quaint weekend summer home retreats of the Shanghai rich.
Finally, I couldn’t stand how ridiculously cautious I had become. Grimly, I made to the muddy trail head and started up. After only a few steps I realized that as gorgeous as the bamboo forest appeared, it was now muddy, slippery and steep. I decided to turn back but now that I was further up, I could see that the sheer number of runners had churned through the path to the point that I had to hold onto the bamboo and there was no way to go down. So, I resigned myself to struggle to the top and there, breathless and almost blinded by a sudden and hard rain. I wondered what to do now that I was lost and confused of where to go next. Then I saw an old Chinese man wearing a broad hat and who didn’t even seem to be wet, carrying a bamboo walking stick who waved at me and said a friendly Ni-Hao and continued up the steep trail. I saw a trail heading down that seemed only reasonably life threatening, and I went for it. After a quick descent I had come out on a road and saw an expat couple. They shouted at me in Chinese and I laughed. I never had been mistaken for Chinese. I explained in English that I didn’t speak Chinese and the attractive woman shook the water from her hair, “Outside of a few phrases neither do we. We’re lost. Any idea of how to get back to the hotel?”
I laughed and pointed down the road.
“That might be the way back, but whatever direction I think I should go turns out to be the wrong way. I wouldn’t trust me.”
They laughed at me, and I laughed at me and we slowly walked in the rain that had become a deluge. Finally, a van pulled up to us. An expat leaned out of the window.
“You need a ride back to the hotel?”
“Yes!” we shouted and soon we were back where it was dry and pleasant. I found Jinghuan in a pair of shorts looking dry and rested even though she had just run ten miles in a heavy rain.
“Where were you?” she asked.
“I got lost.”
She laughed. “I knew it. Let’s get something to eat I’m starving.”
My macho wife led the way.
The next morning our room way chilly but pleasant under the covers. We made languid love until we heard the sound of an explosion under the window of the fourth floor building we were sleeping in.
I thought maybe it was backfire of some truck, but it happened again and again. Finally, I looked out of the window to see old people seated in chairs around a canon that they fired off every five minutes or so.
“Why are they doing that?” I asked Jinghuan.
She shrugged. “I have no idea.”
Then she pointed to some flowers. “Somebody died.”
“Oh,” I said, and another clap of thunder cannon shot reverberated around the room.
It was a strange moment making love to my future wife, the future mother of our spitfire daughter Colette, while hearing cannons go off below our window.
It was surprisingly romantic.
Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, and got his MFA in Creative Writing from UC Irvine. He is the author of six books, including Understanding This, for which he won the Quality Paper Book Club’s New Voices Award. Currently he is the Executive Director of “Literature for Life,” an educational advocacy organization, and Creative Director of The Pasadena LitFest. His latest novel is Monster’s Chef.