Writers Abroad Magazine 6 May 2017 - Page 18

WRITERS ABROAD MAGAZINE: THE THIRD SPACE FINDING CHINA BY MAGGIE SHELTON The hotel lobby did not promise much with its cracked walls, peeling counters and overflowing ashtrays. ‘Lunch at twelve o’clock. Shuttle for airport, six o’clock. Room 610. You stay with that woman.’ The clerk pointed to a very old Chinese woman, standing alone amongst the milling travelers in the lobby. I had seen her on the bus from the airport and wondered what was she doing, on her own, making this long trip through Shanghai to Los Angeles. Now I considered her again, this tiny, frail woman clutching her room key and hunched over her small carry-on. ‘Christ,’ I hissed through my teeth, and narrowed my eyes at this added unpleasantness after the fourteen-hour delay. The elevator was sketchy at best. It lurched from floor to floor groaning and shuddering, reluctant to open its steely doors but not hesitating to snap them shut with an alarming speed. I held firmly to the bird hand of the woman, and at the sixth floor I bulldozed our way through the tightly packed bodies, pulling the woman with one hand and holding our two carry-ons with the other. Curses followed me, but I didn’t care, determined to get out before the doors crushed the both of us. In the room, I discovered the woman knew a smattering of English, enough to tell me that she was ninety-one, lived with her daughter in Los Angeles, and had traveled back to China one last time to visit family before she died. She lay down and immediately fell asleep. I removed her shoes and tucked her purse close in beside her, then covered her with a blanket. It was only mid- morning, and I was hungry, so I left, using the trash-filled stairwell to descend the six floors. Outside, I bought an apple, two bananas and a soft apricot to share with my roommate, and a lemon to freshen the stale odor of our room. I’d arrived in Chongqing two months before to visit my son and daughter-in-law only to watch my son being arrested for an expired visa and taken off to prison. I’d spent the first month plaguing the American Consulate and demanding help until negotiations had reduced his sentence of six months to three. The second month I’d taxied to the slums of the city where the ancient prison stood, walking through human waste and past underfed children to stand in line for hours, just to deliver his weekly food and cigarette allowance. All romantic thoughts I’d had for China had swirled down the drain with the rest of the sewage. The noisy and crowded streets of Shanghai differed little from Chongqing, and nothing caught my attention until I spotted a soot-stained, scalloped wall topped with fancy iron-work. Maybe enclosing a park, or a public garden, I hoped. My momentary surge of excitement dampened the moment I stepped into the park. Viewed through the mold-covered gates from the sidewalk, I thought I might finally have come upon the real China I’d set out to find. Something with a small arching bridge, graceful, sweeping willows, and the trill of a bluebird in 17 | MAY 2017