Yangtze Villa Guesthouse
Tonight: Bruno, a dreadlocked Australian, recounting the islands of Malaysia, white sand and clear water. “I could see down, man. I mean all the way down, you know, to the ocean floor. I dunno, right, like there’s so much clarity. Like I could see all the way down to the bottom of myself.” It’s just he and I and a nearly-passed out Italian, the impossible feat of being the last people awake in a hostel.
The waters of the Yangtze are impenetrable, though, depth and contents unknowable. Here the water is red, dye or waste or blood. Shiny-slick patches of oil glisten ten feet back from the edge. Oil or gasoline. Or blood. The current rages until it stops, diverts itself past an unseen obstacle, only to churn onwards.
River view!!! the ad on Hostel World read. I, who had felt inordinate pride at my effort to garner all information about China before coming to the country: still surprised at how unseemly a view it was. The website’s oversized, flashing fuschia font, perhaps, should’ve been my first clue. Excess exclamation points my second.
The river looks nothing like a river should, looks sturdy enough to be another road. Perhaps it has the strength to support bicycles and food carts, maybe even a handful of cheaply made cars.
From dinner, when there were more of us, I recall that Bruno hadn’t paid extra for the isolation of a private room, that he was stuck under the sagging bunk of a fat American, in a room with four bunk beds and seven other fat Americans. “I’m sorry, mate,” he said, pointing a beer to indicate he meant me, “but all Americans are fucking fat.”
In another hotel, along the shores of a more scenic river, perhaps the guests are already abed, doors locked to drink wine, swallow the cheaply bought pills that have an equal chance of being ecstasy, valium, sugar, or aspirin. The guests here, however, are locked up with charcoal pills and bottled water and prayers the river doesn’t become sentient before the first bus out in the morning.
“You’ll be fine,” my father told me over the phone, as I shakily explained that I wasn’t coming back, not yet. Two years teaching in Korea had wiped out my student loans, and a third had padded my bank account to almost uncomfortable levels. That much money is best invested in being an adult, but the excess zeroes were like breadcrumbs. They lead me further into the world, and farther away from home.
“My brave girl, my perfect peach, tearing up Asia. Send me a postcard every day.”
Though I had called for permission and reassurance, his love felt like a burden, an oversized paperback that I have tried to leave behind at the past three guesthouses, always repacked at the last minute. He loves the me in my letters, taking Korean lessons every week and pickling my own kimchi. He loves the me watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat. He knows nothing of his almost-grandchild or the drunken late-night fumblings of a dozen more near misses. I do not want to carry his faith, the unconditional love that feels so wholly undeserved.
Bruno is kicking my foot under the table, and in another life I’d have been flattered that my fat American-ness were not such a roadblock to my fuckability. But the miles have taught me he’s the sort to be more interested in my private bathroom than anything we’d get up to in bed. He’s the type to tell me there’s a condom in his wallet.
I don’t know what rests at the bottom of myself, were I able to see all the way down; if that’s even a sight I’d care to know. I know his story will find a more receptive audience tomorrow, just as I know I’ll continue to pay for the luxury of isolation until it gives me the fortitude to deal with what lies underneath it all.
Tristan Durst is a graduate of the MFA program at Butler University, where she served as the fiction editor for Booth. She loves the music of Jason Derulo, and she doesn't care who knows it.