It was a hot summer’s day. The shadows had grown short, the perfect time to acquire vitamin D from the sun’s rays.
I took my laptop in my bag, walking to the nearby park, doing my best to stay in the bits of road and path dappled in the sun’s rays, passing parasols as I went.
I settled on the first spot to start writing the new chapter of Jack, a lighthearted story becoming less lighthearted by the page. As I questioned myself about this tonal shift, ant cartographers were hard at work mapping the new virgin territory of my bare legs. Having failed to type a single sentence in over ten minutes, I decided a relocation was in order. I had both hands at that time, walking about freely without the need of a cane. Being the only foreigner in the park, I met all inquisitive looks with a smile and a wave. A worker was standing, watering the lush vegetation that bordered the path I was on. His eyes followed me even after the polite smile and wave. To him, I gave an extra large smile as I passed by along with a “ni hao” the worker remained mute but nodded his head thoughtfully, the arm controlling the long hose moving with an automatic rhythm.
I continued my walk, looking around at the people, bugs, and flowers as I am prone to. With each step, I felt with increasing certainty that I didn’t know what to write next. There was an unoccupied shaded bench with a nice view of foraging birds around the next bend. As I approached the new bench where I planned to have my next writer’s block, I made eye contact with the occupant of a nearby bench, smiled, and waved. She waved back, surprise registering on her face. There was a wheelchair next to her. It was loaded with bags.
I sat down on my bench and managed a whole paragraph in between watching the birds’ peaceful pecking. Looking over to my right, the woman was looking at me. She waved, I waved back, she smiled, I got back to describing a vampire’s kitchen.
My ears registered the sound of dented, rusted wheels moving on uneven paving stones. She was up and moving in my direction. Parking her wheelchair in front of my bench, she asked in surprising English if she could join me. I scooted to the left to make room closing my laptop.
“Where are you from?” She asked. Her accent was better than many of my students, her voice honey sweet.
Political tensions with America were high, so I gave the typical half-truth. “Germany” It is true that I was born there and lived there, that my mother is German. It was also true I haven’t been there since I was ten and retain only enough German to say that I am German and to swear in a foreign language when I find myself in polite company and feel a need to swear.
I had learned if I said the more accurate “America/Meiguo” during this time period, I might have to brace myself for anger, an uninteresting argument, or simply someone informing me of something bad about America they had read that day. Not to mention the many tedious arguments that centered around the fact I did not look particularly what they thought of as an American.
If, on the other hand, I said Germany, I only ever get a “Deguo Hao” (Germany is Good) and a thumbs up. In this way, I had thus been conditioned.
“Germany is good,” she said in her sweet tone, holding her scarf in front of her mouth. “Have you been to America?”
“Yes,” I admitted, “I spent most of my life in America. That is where I went to college.”
She smiled, her lips firmly pressed together. Before she spoke, she once again lifted her ratty scarf to cover her mouth. “America is good. Have you been to California?” The wheelchair was specifically filled with black trash bags. Her clothing was a mismatch of sportswear and leisure, all of which were in need of repair and in greater need of a wash.
“No, I have not been to California though I have heard the weather is rather lovely. You have excellent English. Did you spend time there?”
She blushed slightly and moved closer. “My English is not so good. Your Chinese is better.” She said, telling an all too common lie. “I worked for Mr. Hammersmith as their Chinese liaison.”
“What kind of company.”
“A Californian petroleum company.” (She told me the name, but I, dear reader, have sadly forgotten it)
I nodded my head. “Very impressive.”
“You know it? You know Mr. Hammersmith?
“No,” I admitted.
“Mr. Hammersmith was a good man” As the conversation was underway, she kept the scarf in front of her mouth.
I nodded with an extra effort to look understanding. “How is he doing now?” I asked.
She looked down. “Mr. Hammersmith is dead. He was a great man, I worked for him. Have you heard of Mr. Hammersmith?”
I looked at her torn shoes and her wheelchair full of trash bags. “I have heard he was a great man.”
“He is dead now.” She said. She rustled through one of the trash bags producing a container of relatively dubious-looking blueberries. “Please have one.”
“No, I am fine. You enjoy.”
“Please have one.”
With a masking smile, I opened up the package and took one, it was hot, and the flavor was off. “Thank you, that is very kind.”
She smiled happily, letting her scarf fall for once. My first glimpse of her teeth showed them in dire need of dental attention. I smiled at her. Realizing her slip, she raised her scarf back to its previous position, covering half her face.
“This is a lovely park,” I said.
“It is very hot today. Aren’t you hot in your scarf?”
“I prefer it like this.” She said. “Do you live near here?”
I pointed in the general direction of my apartment. “Yes, just over there.”
“Have you lived in Beijing long?”
“What do you do?”
“I teach economics, though I really want to be a writer.” I pointed to my laptop.
She nodded the way I nodded during the discussion of the late Mr. Hammersmith. “Do you live with other people?”
“Do you get lonely?”
I smiled. “I’m fine. Do you have WeChat?”
“My house is being renovated.”
“I hope the renovations finish soon.” I was meeting a friend in about an hour.
“Yes, it will be over soon.”
“I have to go now to meet a friend soon. Do you have an email address or a phone number?”
She looked at her wheelchair, loaded with black bags. “I haven’t always been like this. It was… recent.”
I nodded in understanding. “It was very lovely meeting you. Can I ask for your name?”
Her left hand still busy suspending her scarf she extended her right, which I shook. There was no dirt under her nails. “My name is Jun.” She said in her disarmingly sweet voice.
“Rob,” I said, “it has been very nice to meet you.”
In truth, the conversation in full lasted over an hour, though it did not contain much more substance than was written above.
I began walking back to my apartment to start getting lunch ready. There was a pit in my stomach. I took a detour to a nearby convenience store filling my bag with various things.
I walked back to where I had left her. “Jun?” I called out.
She got up and looked at me, patting the bench for me to sit down.
“Oh,” She said. “So you have more time to talk then?”
“Not really. I need to go home soon, but I went to buy some chocolate and other things for my friend, and I accidentally bought too much. I was wondering if you would like something, as thanks for your blueberries.”
She eyed the bag. I took out the various items I had bought for her. She pointed to the Toblerone, which had not been removed. “I very much like this. If you want, you can keep the rest. I just want this.”
I took out the Toblerone “Ahh, as I said, I went to the store to buy some chocolate for my friend, but I guess you can have half.”
She eyed the chocolate holding it in her hand. “I very much miss this. Can I have the whole thing?”
The pretense of renovations had not been as important as I had previously thought. “Of course, I can always buy more. Those were very nice blueberries.”
She took out the package of blueberries, offering them to me.
“No, no, I am rather full. Please don’t worry about it.”
“Can I come to your place sometime? I can cook for you. I am very good at cooking delicious American food. I can make you clam chowder to thank you.”
“No, no, it is fine. I really must be going.”
“I just really want to help you. You are a very kind person.”
“Please enjoy the chocolate.”
This conversation too, was longer, but while I remember it vividly, I do not have the heart to write it in its entirety.
I walked away feeling awful. I had an extra room, well, sort of an extra room. It was my bunny’s room. Certainly, a human was more important than a bunny. But it was different. I thought of all the large global problems in the world. I thought of all the more efficient, less personally life impacting ways of providing help to the less fortunate. I thought of all the morality lectures that I gave to students about the limits of moral responsibility and emphasis on moral world states. Cold rationality was not fit for the task. I still felt like an asshole.
The next few times I went to the park, I didn’t see Jun, I was relieved, and my relief sickened me.
One day in fall, I went walking to my usual coffee shop, and I spotted her wheelchair, her asleep on a bench next to it, bathing in the mid-autumn sun. I went to the coffee shop and finished the work I had planned. On the way back to the park, I planned to stop by the store and buy up their remaining stock of Toblerone. Without waking her, I planned to leave the white bag among the black ones. When I passed by, she was gone.