Drive All Night

Claudia Smith


The envelope was snowy blue, and so pale. "Yet I do not know what the present is, but I am very happy," it said, in pretty pink letters perched over dancing frogs. The paper here was almost as thin as tissue, so fragile that she had to write lightly or her pen would pierce it.
Dear Art, she wrote, What do you think of the stationery? I find English phrases all over the little shops here, probably translated from Chinese or maybe translated from English into Chinese and then back to English. There are phrases all over notebooks pencil cases, scrap books, cards, and of course stationary. They sometimes sound silly, sometimes profound. I'll let you decide what you think of this one. It could mean present, like the here and now, or I guess it could mean a gift.
Not a good beginning. She'd have to start the letter less casually. Maybe she should take a break, make some tea, or drop by Max's apartment.
"You are a very enterprising young lady," Max had told her yesterday over pudding and coffee.
"I'm not sure that's the word you mean," she said.
And he said it again. "No, it is my meaning. You are enterprising."
Artichoke, she wrote, you would like the rain here. Evidently it rains all summer, really lovely rain, and it is so green here too. The women all wear pantyhose with their sandals and long floppy hats and of course, you know this, but everyone bikes everywhere. I'm too afraid to do it. They bike the way we drive. It's serious, you know. I'm afraid if I try it I'll get in a bicycle crash. I saw one yesterday and you know, I've only been here for a few months. It was awful, blood smeared on the pavement.
What was she doing? Artichoke? Her stepfather hadn't spoken to her in over a year and she was going to call him that?
Dear Arty, she wrote. No, Dear Arthur. No, Dear Art. I just wanted to write you because now that I am so far away, it seems that I am thinking about you and Mom all the time. I thought I'd try to write you something, you know, just a little chatty letter. Like the way we used to talk when I'd come home from school, about my day, do you remember? Anyway, I like it here. Sometimes I feel invisible because everyone is looking at me, which is weird, I know.
I'm the youngest teacher here. And the only Texan. The only American, for that matter. I'm living in a concrete compound called the Foreign Experts building. The other teachers complain, there's no shower, the kitchen is tiny, the walls are just concrete plastered with some kind of doily patterned wallpaper, but you know what? I love it. I have my own desk, my own bookcase, my own big television. A giant bathtub and no rent. And Chinese food is cheap here ha ha. There is a cement wall all around my building, and the top of it is covered in shards of broken glass. It reminds me of those horse ranches we passed when we'd go to Big Bend, remember? The ones that had stallions? With all the broken glass on the top? It was sinister but so pretty, too, because they used so many different colors of glass. Well, this wall isn't nearly as imposing or as pretty, but it made me think of that.
I like all the people. Everywhere you look, there's people. If I look out my window, at the street, it's always crawling with people. Even in the early morning. That's when old men crowd the street. They walk their birds, right in their cages. Then they hang the cages in the trees and talk, play cards, sip tea from tall thermoses. They remind me of old men you see in the park at home. Old men are probably the same, wherever you go.
A really nice teacher is helping me learn some Chinese, she visits me twice a week. I'm terrible, and she's very kind. And I'm beginning to like tofu. It soaks up all the good flavors, and I like the texture of it. But I miss good bread. In the mornings, I stop by this little corner shop and buy myself the driest cake for breakfast. The frosted cakes are just awful, they taste like chalk, but I found a poppyseed cake that is almost edible. In fact, I think I'm starting to get a taste for it. The sales lady is funny, I like talking to her. She knows a little English, she says I'm as skinny as a Chinese girl. Which I'm not sure is a compliment, but I said thank you, anyway.
Esme put down the pen. She'd ripped the paper, again.
Dear Art, she wrote. I miss you. But it is nice here, because I feel alone by choice, you know. Because I'm a foreigner, it is only natural that I am alone. People ask me about my family, though, in a way that they never asked at home. In the USA, I mean. There is a man here who kind of reminds me of you. He's German, so maybe that means you're German in spirit. He always says things so that they sound like declarative sentences, if you know what I mean. Yesterday he brought me some Maxwell House Coffee and Jello Pudding. I think you can buy those things at the China World Hotel, but they're pretty expensive. We ate the pudding out on my little balcony and when I told him I was happy, he said "Why are you happy." But he said it as if it was a statement, not a question. It just made me think about you.
Dear Art, she thought. Dear Art. Darling Art. Do you remember my thirteenth birthday? When you gave me my first diary? The pages reminded me of expensive wrapping tissue. The diary was small enough to fit into a purse and it came with a latch and a little brass colored key, light as a penny. It was like a doll's book. And I wanted to write about the way you'd kissed me, so hard, and the warm sticky blackberries in my mouth that were still there when you kissed me, but instead I scribbled and scribbled and ruined it.
Enterprising. It was what her mother had called her, when she'd asked Art for college tuition. When she'd asked him for the old Datsun. Such an enterprising young lady you've become. The word had made her feel free, then. She'd driven all the way to Austin with the windows down and the radio blasting. Those freeways felt endless. Every so often she'd see a heat mirage on the fresh tarmac, shimmering in the hot sun like glass or water.
And the last time she'd called home. "I know all about you, Esmeralda," her mother said. "Don't think for a minute you're coming back here."
"I know," Esme said. I know what I am.
But that was not what she was here. Quite a graceful girl, Wu Laoshi had said about her to Max. She has something rarely found in the Western girls. She has propriety. She lacks subtlety, as they all do, but she is a thoughtful girl.
"She didn't say that, did she? "
"Yes she did. She likes you very much."
"I'll never learn Chinese. I'm not sure I want to - I like not knowing what people say about me," she told him.
She was probably going to kiss Max, someday. She'd never kissed anyone but Art. That's why women like Professor Wu liked her. They thought she was good, honorable. A good girl.
It was getting too dark to write. She would never send this letter anyway. She sat looking out of the balcony window, at the rain. Sun filtered through green vines and filled the room with milky light. The room was such a sad, faded yellow. It reminded her of motel rooms her stepfather had shared with her. Rooms on the east side of town. With sandy sheets and window units that blasted stale air. The colors were the same, minty greens, washed out yellows.
There were those long drives afterwards. Out into the country. Sometimes they'd climb out of the car to fill coffee tins with blackberries.
"We went blackerry picking, sweetheart," he'd say to her mother when they came home late. And the jam her mother made from the berries was so dark and sweet. Esme could never get enough of it. She'd lick it off her fingers, she'd sneak out of bed at night to lick it straight out of the jar.
Windows down and the smell of manure in the air. Never, on those drives, could she remember ever seeing another soul on the roads.
You could drive all night in Texas and still be in Texas.

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