by Jeff Zroback
Coming in from the airport, I couldn’t help but think about the first time I arrived in Hong Kong. Same train, same trip. I had been nervous about starting again in a new town, and I hadn’t wanted the journey to end. Throughout the long flight, I wished the small white plane would slow its progress across my screen.
That night, the Airport Express proved almost too efficient. I had hoped for a more deliberate ride into the city, a chance to luxuriate in fatigue, but the train whisked me into Central before I could fully prepare for what lay ahead. At the station, I joined the brief line at the taxi rank, and, not for the last time, marvelled at the stream of identical red cars. Inside the cab, I opened my laptop and retrieved the bilingual address. The driver read the English back to me—AIA Tower, Electric Road, Fortress Hill—and I felt like a fool.
My new colleagues were there as promised—although not in the coffee shop where we were supposed to meet, but standing on the side of the street as if I had called ahead. I barely had my bags out of the trunk before they were leading me down the street and through a mall to the entrance of my new building. A few minutes later, I was in my flat, and they were gone.
My new home was probably best measured in square inches, but despite its small size, I remember little of its floor plan. Of the bathroom—there must have been one—I recall nothing. I do know that the kitchen—if there was one—was poorly appointed, even, I was later to learn, by Hong Kong standards. There was no cooker or microwave, maybe a fridge, possibly a kettle. Unable to cook, for months, I lived off skunky Tsing Tao and sandwiches made with Park and Shop char siu.
The living area of my bachelor pad was stuffed with furniture designed for a much bigger space and the remnants of previous bachelors: a filthy blanket, a few books—one, an extended parable about people who lived in shifting sands, I remember reading—and a mysterious electrical appliance that set the breaker off with a loud pop. The flat did have the advantage of a wraparound balcony, although it was on a low floor and overlooked a forgotten space between several towers. Within a few days, I learnt that if I sat outside the dripping air conditioner with an umbrella, I could efficiently steal my neighbours’ Wi-Fi. One day, umbrella’d on the terrace, I discovered the writers’ group where I would meet you.
Until last year, I hadn’t visited Hong Kong for nearly five years. Now I have been back twice in the last two, both times around my birthday. But these trips have had nothing to do with turning 35 and then 36 and everything to do with seeing you. Still, it has been strange being back, and not just because of the new flat, the new neighbourhood, the new restaurants with the same old dishes.
The city feels half-forgotten, a misremembered novel on a second reading. I find myself out-of-sync with the town, getting things wrong. I no longer hail taxis with assertive efficiency, instead I circle the pavement looking for the ideal spot from which to wave. Even with Google Maps, I get turned around, miss the start of a path I must have walked a hundred times. The minimal Cantonese I once knew has evaporated to a few tone-deaf phrases.
And I forgot the number of our first flat, where just by chance, two of our friends now live. On the street, I couldn’t identify the entrance and had to phone up. Then, as I walked up the five flights, everything seemed different—brighter and longer—and I wasn’t sure I was even in the right place. I barely recognised the flat; it had been completely done over and was newer and nicer, but was somehow also smaller. At least clumps of wet plaster no longer fell from the ceiling into the second bedroom, as it had when it was our office, and we’d had to cover your computer in plastic.
Our old rooftop was nicer, too, had even appeared in a feature on the city’s coolest terraces. But it also felt reduced somehow, even without the homemade table, illegally constructed tarpaulin, and the old fish tank which nearly shattered in my hands. Maybe it felt bigger when it was ours, and I was there with you. Maybe I’d just misremembered.
I no longer have the name of the bookstore, or even the location of the building. All I know is that it was up an elevator. That, and that it’s where I met you. I showed up, pathetically, to the writers’ critique without having written anything, without even the intention of writing anything. But I was sat next to you. And you were so beautiful. Are so beautiful. That I will always remember. Of the other participants that night, I recall next to nothing, except as they relate to you. I know that at one point I tried to defend you from the loud condescensions of a middle-aged expat. Later, I understood he hadn’t been intentionally cruel, it was just who he was. It was later, too, that I realized it was condescending to think that you even needed saving.
After the meeting, I stood in the lobby where you could see me. I lingered, pathetically, pretending to text message and wait for the elevator. For as long as I could, I delayed pushing the button, knowing the lift would come too efficiently, and not wanting my chance to end. Brave men make their own opportunities, but I have never been a particularly brave man, and so I choose passivity. In the end, all I remember is that you didn’t come. That, and that it was an elevator ride down.
You have always been better at the hard stuff—demanding refunds, holding our spot in unruly Indian ticket queues, outlasting intransigent hotel clerks—and so, of course, you made the first move. Your email saved me from my passivity (saved me from many things). We both remember that in it you lied, said you and your writer friend wanted to meet, when only you did. I thought you were setting me up with her, but that night, when only you appeared, I was elated. I don’t remember the restaurant, but I do remember that.
It was great being back in the city, walking its old passages and finding new ones. I enjoyed a few Tsing Taos and sandwiches made with Park and Shop char siu. And I helped you with the easy stuff. I brought you lunch from the new restaurants with the same old dishes. I set up a new printer, which I now hear echoing over skype, and a coffee maker I am not sure you will use. And we bought more furniture for you flat, and now it seems nicer and newer, but also somehow larger.
But, mostly, I relearnt what it was like to be with you—to feel your hand in a theatre seat, to share sour red wine and eat oily Sichuan, to sleep with all the lights on and through the sound of typing. All that, but especially how it feels to be elated.
The first time I left Hong Kong, you were there. It was early in the morning when we carried our bags down to meet the discount taxi your sister had booked. The street was dark and quiet, and the rubbish bins were full with the remnants of our flat that we had been unable to sell or give away. As I stood there, I thought of the strangers who’d helped us empty our flat—the mid-levels’ Australian who drove down for our train posters, the gay couple who struggled with the termite-infested Chinese cabinet, the disabled man who came all the way from Lamma for our cooker, and whose limp and poverty filled me with such guilt that I gave him our pots, too.
At one point, a taxi appeared, but it was not ours. Instead, a friend who now lives in our old flat emerged with a man neither of us had ever seen. We did not wave. She did not see us, or pretended not to.
I do not recall how long it took for our cab to arrive or anything of the ride to the airport. Of the flight, I remember only that I was nervous for our new life and wished the small white plane would slow its progress across my screen. That, and that you were next to me.
This time, you were there, too. I remember the taxi arriving, but mostly I remember that you were on the wrong side of the window when it left. The driver was too efficient as he whisked me to the airport, and I barely had time to prepare for what lay ahead. On the flight home, I recall I drank too much sour red wine and watched the plane on my screen and wished you were watching it with me. I remember all that, but mostly I remember missing you.