Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Morning Commute

In the 1980's, the winter of Beijing was miserable.  There were so little vegetation the city was often engulfed in sand storms.  Fierce wind hailed from Mongolia and other cold, northern and treeless regions, meeting little resistance from the Great Wall or the palace doors of the Forbidden City.

Luckily we all lived in tiny rooms we called "houses", because the whole family lived in one room and it served the function of a living room, dinning room, bed room and kitchen, at a minimum.  Thus we huddled close for warmth, in these small cramped and noisy spaces, close to each other and to our neighbors. My house is located in a courtyard that once belonged to a rich family with servants, hundreds of years ago.  It had seven main rooms and two large center courts, one in the front yard and one in the back.  But in our days thirty families crammed inside the same yard, some living in one of the original rooms (if you were lucky), and some in poorly built additions that stuck out into the yard like sore thumbs.  Overtime, these additions had taken over the center court, so only a narrow path remained.  The jagged terrains formed by the outer walls of these additions looked menacing at night, and oppressive by day.  But they kept the families warm throughout the winter, best as they could.

On the streets, we were left to fend for ourselves. The walk from my home to school was six or seven blocks. I was six then, a stick figure with a lollipop head. I had curious round eyes always thirsty for something new, and my hair draped lifelessly down my back.  Mom said it kept me warm - in case all of my winter layers failed to do their jobs. Dad didn't like to leave things to fate, so he wrapped me in his woolen brown scarf, on top of the layers of long johns, sweaters and thick socks pulled up over the leg of my long johns.   I also wore thick cotton filled pants, coats and shoes with slick plastic bottoms.

I resembled a sausage with as much mobility under all those layers of heavy cotton, so peripheral vision was limited at best.  We walked in pairs if not in groups to and from school.  The ground was frozen though there was hardly enough moisture in the air to form snow.  That would have been pretty.  Families who lived along the way spilled buckets of washings along the sidewalks, too tired or lazy to walk all the way to the few public sinks or outhouses for more proper disposals.  So we walked gingerly, Fang, Ming and I, tiptoed and turning our whole bodies about before any crossings, against the wind which pushed us back like determined hands, wincing through sand that pelted our faces, our eyes, and most of all, our will to move another step forward.

Once I tried to talk to Ming when the wind kicked up suddenly, pelting me with a mouthful of dusts.  I tasted the grains in the back of my tongue, felt them between my teeth and in my nostrils.  They made me gag and choke before I could gather myself and spit them out.  We stopped to huddle in a small circle of sausage arms and legs, turning our backs against the wind, our heads pointing into the circle, finding solace in the shelter of each others' faces, all looking down but not out.  We giggled and waited out the gusty wind, but it circled around us for ten minutes before leaving, no doubt gathering forces for other attacks later. 

"We are going to be late again!  Hurry up you slowpokes..." Fang shook her head at us, waving us forward as she broke into a jog.  She was the tallest among us, and the most determined.  Her brother Jong was three years older and the class president for fourth grade.  Fang acted like she was destined for leadership.

"Oh shoot, I hate being late. Think that Mrs. Wang will make us stand in the corner?" Ming chased after Fang and looked to everyone for answers.  She had a sweet round face and a short bob.  Her older sister Ling often combed her hair by the window next to mine where I brushed my teeth or washed my face.

"Nah, not when we are altogether and we can tell her the road was terrible so we couldn't help it." I chimed in.  My brother Mo had taught me how to handle some of the teachers.

"You are Mo's sister?  Oh good!  He is a math genius and my favorite student for the last three years."  Mrs Wang had told me when she found out who I was, or whose sister I was.  Her body reminded me of a box of match sticks.  Her hair was pin straight and short, her eyes sharp, her face deeply lined and her arms and legs skinny and short.   "Your brother never had trouble with these exercises and quizzes!" she was fond of saying, looking at me out of the corner of her eyes, dragging out the "n" in "never".  She smirked sometimes when she said this as if to soften the blew.  Ming thought she liked me because she never smirked otherwise.  But I had since learned to avoid her gazes completely, especially when I was peeking outside the window and feeling bored with math.

"Hey-"  I yelled ahead as I saw Ming and Fang ran into the street ahead without me.  Their steps pounded on the hard surface of the street, strong and focused.  Soon their backs whittled down to two little dots, and the sound of their footsteps distant echos.  I moved to run after them, but my legs felt leaden.   My arms couldn't swing so I twitched my shoulders violently forward, somewhat in sync with my barely moving legs, trying not to look like a poorly fired canon ball.   I was in the middle of the crossing when the wind came back again, holding me still and pelting me hard.   I bowed my head and held my arms up to shield my face, hoping it would pass in a few seconds or so.

"Ding!"  The bell rang next to my ear, forcing me to unfold my arms and look up.  The gray mist of sand and dusts blurred the lines of the streets and houses, but I saw him coming at me without control - like the wind was throwing his bike forward as much as it was holding me back.  His jacket and pants were as gray as his bicycle and the dusts all around us, so he looked like a gray ghost of the wind whirling through the winter vortex.  I froze. He blinked.  The tires of the bicycle bumped my shoulder and sent me rolling like a cotton ball, my shoulders, head, knees and my back taking turns hitting the ground in slow motions.  The hit was softer than I thought, I imagined it would split me open like a knife the second before, but it was more of a bump.  It made me sore and tipped me over but I felt the tire gave also, like I was a tough wall or something.  I tasted something coppery in the back of my mouth, my head buzzed and my eyes fluttered but only saw sparks.  "Shit!" I said to myself before loosing sight of the gray world around me.

"Hey, wake up? Are you dead? Don't die okay?" His voice broke through into the comforting black trance wrapped around me, and I opened my eyes to see his face lowered just above mine, his arms held me in his lap.  He looked about thirty, his dark hair unruly and his face not very well shaved.  A deep scar ran across the top of his lips and splitting it at an odd place, making him look a bit like a rabbit, especially when he talked.  He was yelling at me.

"Why weren't you looking before you cross? And why did you stop in the middle of the road?  Didn't your parents teach you how to cross the road?  Where are your walking pairs? Why aren't you at school already?"

My mom and dad would have admired his list of questions.  "You hit me!" I wanted to yell. But he looked a little mad, even though he wasn't scary looking.  I shook my head and tried to squeeze out some tears, but they wouldn't come.  Suddenly I remembered school, and Ming and Fang and Mrs. Wang.  The panic of being left behind and the prospect of standing in the corner by myself got to me, My eyes grew sore, my nose flared, and those damned tears came just when I was ready to get up and run.

"Wait wait wait, oh god, please don't cry. Oh no!"  He squeezed his eyes shut at the sight of my tears and shook his head roughly from side to side.  That made his cheeks shake and his mouth slop like a cartoon character.  I stared at him, wanting to laugh but I bit my lips so hard only a smirk escaped.

"I'm really late for school!" I shouted at him, heart pounding fast.
"Oh, I can take you -  but are you okay? Really?"

Together we patted me up and down from head to toe, and concluded everything was just where it should be - arms, legs, head, toes - and they were all working as well as before.  My throat got so dry so my nose was bleeding a little later that day.  But my winter clothes protected me well, mom and dad would have been pleased if they saw me then, after they recovered from the collective heart attack of seeing me hit that is.  

He put me on his bicycle and rod towards my school.  He shielded me from the wind most of the way, and told me he worked at the nearby store.  "Stop by after school if you want, I'll show you some candies that just came in from Shanghai." he said.

We saw Ming and Fang when we got to the school gate.  The bell had just rang so they scrambled across the gate and were too busy to see me. "Hey we made it!" I raised my hands and pumped my fist.  It hit him in the face but he chuckled and stopped his bike.  "I'm so sorry I hit you, be careful crossing the road next time. Don't get hit again"

"Thanks.  You too, look for kids before you cross the road around here! Stay out of jail!"

"You little devil - smart mouth will get you no where!" he laughed.

"Yes it will. Bye!"  I waved at him and skipped to school. 

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