The guy said that he’d been held and interrogated in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War – sure he’d been drinking, but enough to fabricate something like that? The whole reason you go to an expatriate bar on Christmas is to hear the bullshit. It’s less a matter of lies than degrees of truth, because everyone here is a storyteller, which is to say that they deal in truths that fall short of being factual. I bet he was there in Belarus on the Russian front in some capacity, maybe even a shady one. How he ended up in China after the fall was a mystery in itself.
It’s a mystery how anyone ends up here, really – in this city, in this country, in this particular tavern on this particular night. We’ve all got damage, though I might have taken a larger share. But when there’s an opportunity, you take it, even if it means leaving a piece of yourself – even if it means cadging a bit of turkey and some free drinks at a holiday party you didn’t know you were invited to. It’s normal in its own way, even if the people aren’t.
I slipped away from our local Soviet expert only to be flagged down by a pair at another table – English by the sound of them, at least the one who was still speaking somewhat clearly. He wanted to know about American politics and brain drain and what it’s like in the Heartland. His friend with the trembling hands – I heard he was a doctor once and I can take a fair stab at what happened to change that – had a series of infinitely more personal questions. So how old were you when you had your first sexual experience? Ah…and with whom? A woman? Did you enjoy it? Did you feel pressured? He seemed to think I was gay, or maybe hoped. A real animal lover, that one, nearly sobbing when I told him that I’d never eaten dog meat.
Back to the old table, my new friend with the Belarus background, now chatting with a new friend – someone I knew well from my own workplace. A nice, dignified, worldly older fella right until the alcohol and THC did their magic, and then the darkness came out. This man had done some shit, and I believed him – on the principles if not the facts. Caught between the two of them was the original audience, a kid photographer who clearly needed a way out. The best I could do was offer a distraction.
It took my coworker a moment to put a name to the face. “So you ended up here.”
“Everyone has to be somewhere, right?”
My coworker turned to Mr. Belarus with that wide swerve one sees in the subtly yet profoundly intoxicated. “I really like this one, you know. You know why?” He was facing both of us, the target of his gaze uncertain in the aesthetically dim light.
Was he looking for an answer? There was a pregnant pause, upset only by the vintage REM playing in the background to the rhythm of clinking bottles. Uncertain as to the expectations, I stilled my tongue with a belt of warm stout.
“You know why? Because he’s a mystery.” I guess he was talking to Mr. Belarus. “He’s careful with his words, this one. Not like keeping secrets, he’s just…judicious. You know what else?” He stilled his words just long enough for a quick swig. “…He’s supporting a Chinese girl and her son back in the States.”
They kept talking about some drunken nonsense or another, but the words were lost to me. Gradually, the two of them lost track of my very existence, and with time the tavern emptied out as patrons went in search of their next thrill. I made my own exit quietly as I always do, sliding back into the winter night without a word. It was drizzling, the icy rain coating the visible world in an ephemeral sheen that caught the lights of the street. Putting my address across to the cab driver was a struggle as always, but my Mandarin seemed to be just competent enough that he could comprehend my words, and then we were off. The lights of the bar street faded into a commercial district full of towers that looked dead for the darkness flowing through them.
We’ve all got damage, and we’re all storytellers – each story a scar of memory, each telling a small attempt to heal that old wound. What my coworker said was true if not strictly factual. That’s about the best any of us can manage, I guess, that we aren’t outright inventing a past. We’re just looking for a quieter existence.
Born in rural western Kansas, Andrew Johnston discovered his Sinophilia while attending the University of Kansas. Subsequently, he has spent most of his adult life shuttling back and forth across the Pacific Ocean. He is currently based out of Hefei, Anhui province. He has published short fiction in Nature: Futures, Electric Spec, Mythic and the Laughing at Shadows Anthology. You can learn more about his projects at findthefabulist.com.