Decompression

It must have been something I ate. I had planned to accompany my cousin Larry, who graciously offered to drive E and C to the airport today, but barely five minutes into the drive my stomach began to rumble in that ominous way and a few embarrassed apologies later, I found myself hugging Erica and Carson goodbye in front of a twenty-four hour MacDonald’s in Shilin, clutching a box of Kleenex just in case there were none in the public restroom I was about to grace with my presence.

“This is not exactly how I wanted to say goodbye,” I said.

“Don’t even worry about it,” Erica said.

“When you gotta go, you gotta go,” Carson said.

We hugged in front of the MacDonald’s, several of its patrons watching us from the windows and wondering, no doubt, why the tall lanky caucasians were saying goodbye to a young, seemingly local woman who was holding nothing but a cellphone and a box of Kleenex. I was wearing a shirt I had bought at the Shiling Night Market as a joke – a long sleeved screen shirt with a giant pair of sunglasses and underneath: “Worst. Hangover. Ever.” I planned to wear it after raucous nights out, such as last night, when my cousin and I gave Erica and Carson one last taste of Taipei’s nightlife, hitting up a speakeasy, lounge in the span of a few short hours, but rather than feeling hungover, just felt the beginnings of flulike symptoms that got worse and worse as the day wore on. Erica and Carson packed after our last meal together at Din Tai Fung. I slept.

And just like that, they were gone, back in the car and on the road to Tao Yuan airport, where just two weeks ago I had happily met them at 10PM with my cousin Karen, who had graciously offered to pick them up from the airport. VIP treatment for their American guests, she said, and I laughed. How quickly those two weeks went by.

It was one of the less busy Macdonald’s I had seen, but also seemed to cater to truck and taxi drivers. I think it had a drive through, but I can’t be sure, because I was focused on finding a restroom. I did, and everything turned out fine – didn’t suffer a Charlotte-in-Mexico moment (people who have seen SATC the Movie will know what I’m talking about) as I had feared, and instead found myself feeling slightly better in a strange part of town, and still, clutching a large box of Kleenex.

A slight person wearing a motorcycle helmet stood in front of the MacDonald’s readying to mount a scuffed scooter and it was only I came closer that I dared to follow my “Excuse me” with a “Miss.” She could have been a teenager, she could have been in her mid-thirties – with women here, it’s hard to tell sometimes – but she was holding a soft serve cone and seemed friendly.

“Where’s the closest MRT station?” I asked. She told me that I was unfortunately, standing exactly equidistant from two and would either have to cross a freeway bridge to get to one or walk a long way in a motorcycle underpass to get to the other.

“Motorcycle underpass,” I said. Patiently, between unhurried, dainty licks of her ice cream cone, she showed me how to go.

It was one of the stranger walks I’ve taken solo, anywhere, not just in Taipei, and not simply because I was holding a box of Kleenex. Erica and Carson were lucky with the weather – before their arrival it had rained nonstop for nearly two months and even the day I landed, just two days ahead of them, the weather had turned startlingly cold.

“A cold front,” my aunt said, shivering, and then contrarily opened all the windows wider.

I wondered if I would stay in Taipei so long if the weather would be this harsh, but Erica and Carson arrived, a smiling, happy-go-lucky couple with wide eyes and large appetites and it was as though Taiwan wanted nothing more than to impress her new visitors, and so put on her atmospheric best. We were blessed with sun and cooling yet balmy breezes. It was almost miraculous, until this afternoon when everything changed. A cold wind began to blow and a misty drizzle began to fall and as I hailed one last bus for us, my hair sweeping every which way except back, I wondered if it would start raining again now that the two whole Californians were leaving.

But as I began my walk home, the winds died down and the clouds began to thin a bit, so that the colors from the setting sun could be seen in the west. I was heading west, so I walked towards those colors: pale pinks and oranges, a blinding grey-white in some areas where the clouds were more stubborn, and all around it a feathery, dusty blue. In that area, Shilin, the streets seemed narrower, were certainly older (or perhaps just less moneyed and shiny), and every now and then I turned to find a small, quiet, leafy park with rudimentary exercise equipment and a small, low temple in the middle of it with children playing before it just as children should play on weekend evenings, with nothing to do but shout childish, imaginative commands at each other. “You run here and tag her there! I told you not to run that way! That way! Not that way!” An elderly man sat alone under the awning of the temple, looking on, and I did not notice him until one of the young boys sprinted across the paved ground. He seemed, like me, to be enjoying the youth in action before him.

A park in Shilin at dusk. 

I saw mothers pushing their toddlers on swings and a few small clusters of old men sitting on stone benches talking about the past, or perhaps those young children playing and shouting around them. One of them looked up to see me as I walked past and I smiled. He smiled back at this stranger in his town, on her way back to more familier parts.

And right as I left the border of the park and turned into the dark, exhaust filled motorcycle underpass, I felt that paradoxical sensation I feel only rarely now, because I hardly ever, despite all my “traveling,” take new roads and see new faces. For the past two weeks I played tour guide to E, who had never been to Asia and to C, who had only been to Southeast Asia. For two weeks, I looked, without realizing, for things that I knew and felt familiar to show them. And now, they had gone and I was a traveler again in the truest sense – one who had forgotten what it was like to really slow down and see something.

I felt very much at home in this paradox, if only because I was heading home from this strangeness. I clutched the kleenex box, feeling the soft cardboard folding in underneath my arm, and tucked my phone into my back left pocket, reminding myself that perhaps having 3G was not so much a blessing as a condemnation: I had unwittingly stomped on my role of flaneur and kept my eyes lowered to the little screen. What sights I have missed, I cringe to think. I have joined the ranks of Taipei’s “lowered head crowd”. Remember to look up, to see.

The sun was setting and the air was cooling again. The exhaust from hundreds of scooters rushing off to here and there lingered in the tunnel and on any other day, it would have seemed acrid and unbearable. I would have shelled out for a taxi to take me home as soon as possible. But what I smelled, I realized, had nothing to do with me. They were the remnants of urgency, of other’s urgency to go somewhere, see someone, be something.

Did I feel it too? Yes, most of the time I can relate. But not today. Not in the underpass, not with the park and its low temple temple behind me, its faded red paper lanterns watching over the old men, the small children, their young mothers. Not today.

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