“Hi Aaron. I wasn’t expecting a call from you.”
“Where are you?”
“On a train toward Yunnan Province. It’s a long ride. Thirty-six hours.”
“Taking a vacation from teaching in Xiamen?”
“Yeah. Everyone has the week off. But get this: We all have to return — teachers, students, everyone — and begin the new semester on a Saturday. A Saturday.”
“That shouldn’t be legal.”
“Right,” Michelle said.
“So how’re they treating you over there? Tell me, is China everything you dreamed?”
Michelle moved through the cars of the train. Men smoked cigarettes indoors and drank little bottles of hard wine in the dining car. They played a game of cards with black and white pebbles; and didn’t deny young boys as long as they had money. Outside, terraced farmland flew by. In the distance, white mist shrouded vast, rolling hills. Everything was green, even the river flowing parallel to the train. Telephone wires skipped clumsily along the tracks. Unused materials, steel struts, rails and wooden sleepers were stacked on the gravel ballast below. A worker stood waiting for the train to pass. He marked something on his clipboard and readjusted his hardhat.
“Michelle?” Aaron said.
“Hold on. Let me get between cars. It’s too loud elsewhere … there. Sorry.”
“I thought I lost you. Listen, Michelle … I miss you.”
“No, I know. I know. I don’t really know why I called.”
“What time is it on the West Coast, Aaron?”
“Maybe half-past midnight.”
“It’s 9:30 in the morning here.”
“There’s so much time between us. I feel like we’re further apart than just the ocean, because when you’re asleep I’m awake. We might as well be on different worlds. Anyway. Tell me something exciting about China before I go to sleep. Do they think if they dig a deep enough hole they’ll reach California?”
She laughed but it didn’t sound sincere, even to her own ears. “The people are nice. They like to take pictures with foreigners. Maybe they’re making fun of me, I don’t know. Doesn’t seem like it though. I’m learning the language. It’s not as hard as we make it out to be. But more often than not, people want to practice their English with you, and not the other way around. Sometimes I pretend I’m Norwegian so they’ll have to speak Mandarin with me.”
“Sounds fun,” Aaron said.
The line went quiet for a few moments. Michelle heard a rhythmic pulse through the static of her cell phone every time the train passed a telephone pole, so quiet she wondered if she was just hearing things.
“Meet any men?”
Michelle sighed. “I’m traveling with a boy named Feng Lei.”
“Boy? Or man?”
“He’s 20. He grew up at a Buddhist monastery. He’s shy and sweet and thoughtful … wait, I don’t have to justify anything to you.”
“So he’s all the things I’m not? Is that what you’re implying?”
“Aaron, this is exactly why we can’t be together. You’re crazy. You have no control over yourself. You need help.”
“No, you just can’t believe I would know more about men than you do. Here’s the deal Michelle, no man wants to be your friend. No man ever wants to be a woman’s friend. Acquaintance, maybe. But not a friend.”
“OK, enlighten me. What is it that men want with me?”
“Are you hearing yourself? Are you new to men? Men just want to sleep with you. Men want to use you. And you know what? You, Michelle, are easily used.”
“Don’t call me again.” She brought the phone away from her ear. As it descended, she heard Aaron’s voice falling further and further away: “No, wait. Listen, Michelle —” he tried, but she hung up. She opened the door to the cars ahead. As she walked forward, faster than the speed of the train, she felt herself moving further and further away from him, toward an instant when he would be swallowed up forever, lost in the time behind her.