I don’t know why I stopped in Nanjing on my way to Beijing. Someone had said it was good. Buddhist temples, a mausoleum for Dr. Sun Yat-Sen… Why not? I had time to burn and no place else to be.
It was only after I arrived, hot and grimy and exhausted from late night travel on a crowded train, that I learned from a guidebook that Nanjing was called one of China’s Three Furnaces. And of course, it was August. Fantastic. The sweat was already pooling in my eyes.
After hauling my backpack across the city I learned something else: the hotel for foreigners would not open until late that afternoon. I stood in shock, desperate for a bed that would not be available for six more hours. Behind the counter they were hosing down the cement floor of the foyer. I wanted to lie down on it. I don’t need a bed! Just let me take off my shirt and lie down there! Just let my skin absorb the cool, clean water!
I babbled some Chinese, attempting to propose this alternative, clarifying the request by citing the example of the lizards that absorbed water through their skin as a means of hydration. The man behind the desk stared at me as I spoke, his hand slowly reaching for the phone. I’d seen this before: invariably the call would be to the authorities, and a man in uniform would soon arrive to shout a million questions at me. I left before anyone could confiscate my passport and returned to the full blast of the furnace.
Only six hours. And also: six whole hours! A sign on a bank said it was 38 degrees Celsius; I was too tired to do the conversion to Farenheit but knew it was over 100. Beyond that point, what does it matter?
I trudged through the hot heavy air as if I were walking uphill through a crowd of people. What would I do for six hours? I had seen a picture of the mausoleum, it had a million steps and no shade. I needed rest first.
I found myself in a park with exactly two trees. The sun pounded me and everything I could see. The concrete was bright white and reflecting heat like a solar oven.
I needed not to move. This was the best place I could find where I would not be arrested. Others were here, lying sprawled on the benches. They looked like dead bodies, struck down by the heat. It looked like a better than option than standing up or walking around.
Every square inch of shade from both trees was occupied. Even the outskirts of the shadows were mobbed, as people had anticipated the movement of the sun and the new shade that would be cast.
The benches were all initially taken too, but in a great stroke of luck a man rolled off one and fell onto the ground. He crawled away, finding some comfort underneath another bench. I waited a minute to make sure he had left the first one behind. He had! Completely abandoned! All mine now!
And a second stroke of luck: a flagpole, unseen before, was casting a thin strip of shade across part of the bench! I could position my body so it covered my eyes. Or my neck. Whatever I wanted! I could fold my body, or try to shrink it, to maximize the benefits of this incredible gift.
It should have been inspiring, being so in touch with my body, living in nature the way I was, forcing myself to endure and survive. I had read that in some forms of Buddhism even non-sentient things can have a soul. Maybe that’s true under certain conditions. But it’s a lot easier to believe in the life force of inanimate objects when gazing upon a mountain or waterfall than it is when you’re staring at a cracking granite bench spotted with birdshit.
How had it come this? How had I fallen so far? Who was I? I hated this bench for what it meant: I alone had lost my way. I could feel no awe. Nothing sublime. Just regret and shame. I felt like I owed everyone I knew an apology for having blown whatever confidence they had ever expressed in me. My friends were all secure in their jobs, they all had professions, they were all on a road to success, which was where I should have been too. But no. I had six hot hours on a filthy, rock hard bench with a single strip of shade.
Apology? Maybe I owed one to myself.
But first, there was this bench, this stupid, idiotic bench, the emblem of my misery. Maybe I didn’t need to feel awe for inanimate objects like the bench. Maybe I didn’t need to respect it. Maybe I could just hate. Hate and hate and more hate. Was that a form of respect for something? To hate it? Because I truly hated this bench: hated the fact that it was here, hated that it was all I had left, hated that my life had come to this.
All my frustration and fury focused on this one stupid bench, and I reveled in how disgusting it was because it helped to concentrate my hate and incite it further. I had never seen such a worthless piece of junk in my life. It was the ugliest bench in the park, in the world, with absolutely no redeeming qualities. Completely pathetic.
Look at you, I thought with disgust. People are sitting on the ground rather than you. You have only one purpose, one function, just one single reason to exist, and you’ve failed at it.
In the end the heat overwhelmed me. I collapsed onto the bench and slept like a dead man. I had a dream that I was drinking water straight from the spout of a kettle. The water was boiling; as I guzzled it melted my flesh away and I was left a skeleton lying on a dusty slab of rock at the bottom of a canyon, my mouth wide open in that creepy way that skulls have of looking desperate and dumb but also kind of laughing, my bones slowly bleaching white.
Hellish dreams have a way of making reality seem better. When I woke up the sun had finally dipped and I felt refreshed. Finally a few shadows stretched across the park. My six hours were over and I could look forward to a shower, an ice-cold bottle of beer I could press to my forehead, and a soft bed with fresh white sheets.
Spirits renewed, I lifted myself off the bench. Every bone in my body hurt. It would take me a while to recover.
I felt nothing toward the bench. I’d kick it if I thought it deserved that much from me. But no: the bench might confuse that for affection. The bench might think I was playing. The bench might think I owed it something.
Good bye, bench. I hated you once. Now I am completely indifferent. You are nothing to me.
I resolved never to tell anyone about the bench. No one would understand. Everyone would think I was still dirty, as if spending so much time on the bench had stained me in a way that couldn’t come off no matter how much soap and scrubbing I applied.
And then, as I got to my feet and heaved my pack over my shoulders, I looked back down and noticed something odd: on the bench, there was something that had not been there before. The shape of a human being, like the traced silhouette of a dead body after a shooting.
The shape of me. The remains of my sweat and grime, leaching out of me for six hours.
For some reason I thought of those cartoons where the character dies and his soul rises up from his body. The body lies still, clueless and inert, but the soul knows something the body doesn’t. The soul glimpses a truth.
I was alive, but I was changed and new. I had risen out of something I was leaving behind, but something had been revealed to me. Something to govern the rest of my days, to guide me through the world and my position in it. To let me know where I stood, not just in relation to my fellow human beings, but to all the objects that surrounded me, from the tiniest speck of dust to the biggest purple mountain, and to everything in between.
I had been given a new truth.
This bench, this odious, disgusting bench, had not stained me.
I had stained it.
Nanjing! The furnace! I did climb those steps to the mausoleum, which nearly killed me all over again. I have visited an awful lot of dead people in my day. That’s tourism? I guess it is. I can’t think of anything else it could be. If you enjoyed this, please let others know where you found it. And feel free to run through the rest of the series:
- #10 – The Spitwad – a high school teacher confronts a bully, with a little help from the heavens
- #9 – The Intersection – Hamlet Dad goes to the movies
- #8 – The Burger Car – a father orders burgers with a slice of Proust
- #7 – The Keyboard – a music teacher pushed beyond her limits turns a child’s dreams to nightmares
- #6 – The Mugs – while slicing up life into tenths of an hour, I get a sudden ray of hope
- #5 – The Motorcycle – learning a life lesson from buying a motorcycle in Taiwan and learning to drive one (in that order)
- #4 – The Sweater – a Wisconsin boy moves to the big city and pays a visit to a therapist
- #3 – The Blood Cake – in which I recount my experience sharing an office with Jerry Seinfeld
- #2 – The Spy Drop – a neighborhood war waged by five-year-olds takes a dramatic turn
- #1 – The Padlock – a doomed football coach struggles to survive a winless season
Are you a reviewer? Free review copies are available! If you’re interested in posting a review on your blog, or if you’re willing to write a review at Amazon (or anywhere else), just let me know and I’ll ship you a book. And many thanks for helping to get the word out!
Image Source: World of Stock