Twelve hours into the 40- hour train ride, I promised myself one small justice: the little girl who sat facing me, crowding the foldaway table with her fat head and gelatinized chicken-feet packages, would pay for her very existence.
First I’d have to hatch a plan. Convincing everyone in the over- packed car to be complicit in her murder was easy enough—after all, this was China. How she’d survived this long was anyone’s guess. The real joy came in figur- ing out how we’d dispose of her. That would take some hard con- sideration.
My best friend Justin convinced me to travel China during the summer with him, and it seemed like a great bargain. All I had to do was pay for my flight and living expenses. He spoke Mandarin fluently, so getting around should’ve been easy. In my mind, I saw our trip as an experience to grow. I looked forward to the future me, coming home with a worldly sophistication women would undoubtedly find intoxicating. “So tell me again about those, what’d you call them, ‘Third-world toilets.’”
Surely this trip would be worth the money, buying me the perks of a Peace Corps stint without heady pretentiousness. “You need the authentic Chinese experience,” Justin said before we bought
our train tickets from Xiamen, a southeastern island, to Kunming, a southwestern city-hub. I fan- tasized about what an authentic Chinese experience would be like,and although a train ride never factored into my daydreams of tiger-wrestling and cart-wheeling down the Great Wall, sitting on a train watching farmland whip past sounded whimsical.
But when we went to buy tick- ets, the tired woman behind the window told us all the sleeper cars were sold-out.
“No problem,” Justin assured me. “We’ll buy a seated ticket. At least we won’t have to stand. It’ll be an adventure.”
Now, as I looked at our reflec- tions in the darkening window- pane, I saw us for what we really were: a couple of foreign idiots.
I tried to drift off to sleep, but the little girl across from me kept stretching her legs and clumsily smashed her pointed shoes directly into my already crowded shins. These were not graceful move- ments and her choice of footwear didn’t help with my annoyance, which quickly manifested itself into a healthy anger. Who al- lowed a 9-year-old to wear high- heels in public anyway? Her ugly father, that’s who. The man who sat next to her and concentrated on keeping his daughter enter- tained. He was a good and patient man, which disgusted me further. She didn’t deserve him. He should’ve been playing cards with me, laughing together in friendly competition.
As the night wore on, I strug- gled with strange half-dreams, in which I was the lone spectator at this little girl’s tap dancing spectacular. I made the mistakeof sitting in the front row and now had to suffer as she flailed her legs, as though she’d been sitting wrong for too long and was attempting to shake the numbness from her boneless limbs.
By the 30th hour, I kicked back. I wanted to go home, I wanted to be off this train, away from its aisles so packed with people it took five minutes to walk the 20 rows to the bathroom. For the first time since fifth-grade summer camp, I wanted to go home. That’s when I realized “home” wasn’t some metaphorically centered- state-of-being. No. Home was very much a physical place.
But maybe home was where this little girl was headed, along with her her loving father. A place filled with adorably small stilettos she’d outgrown throughout the years and a corkboard lined with old train tickets and photographs.
The realization flooded me with a sense of relief and un- derstanding. These people were heading toward the same place I was, or heading away from it, but either way, we were all stuck in transit together, not knowing where we’d end up or exactly when.
I began to fall asleep to that thought, smiling at my epipha- ny. When she kicked me again, my newfound acceptance flew out the window. Instead, I sim- ply dreamed of throwing her out after it and sleeping to the endless applause of a slightly less-crowded train car.