Multimedia artwork by Belinda Subraman
Ari Cohen's ex-girlfriend is wanted by the Chinese government. Or so he thinks is the case, given what she does and what he knows about the Chinese government, and what she has mentioned in passing in her monthly emails. Even in an era of rising anti-semitism, it doesn't seem much easier to Ari to be Chinese. Authoritarian governance. Restrictions on movement. Federally sanctioned espionage of citizenry. Mary, Ari decides, with a Chinese father and a white American mother, has it best. Committed to neither world nor set of values.
He is standing in the Urumqi airport at 7:00 AM on January 6, 2016.
It is an airport like an ice hockey rink. The color, something between gray and white. The air, cold and sweet with droplets of Chinese fast food. The sunlight, just now a yellow dagger piercing the windows and staining the turreted steel of the ceiling. Ari is searching for a place to sit. He turns around. He looks up and notices one of the restaurants on the upper deck, above the terminal signage, is now open. He must find the escalator.
Ari came to Urumqi, a place that feels like it is at both the edge and the center of the world, to meet his ex-girlfriend. They will travel together for one week. Her name is Mary Yun. Mary is a reporter and a translator. She is the Xinjiang AP correspondent. She speaks five languages: English, Mandarin, Uyghur, Cantonese, and French. They dated for eight years.
I will start with Nang and Mutton Kebabs, and then try Palau or Pimirdin, Ari decides, having read about Urumqi's cuisine nonstop for the last four months. But then he wonders if the airport is really the best place to begin his immersion into the local food, reconsiders, and orders ramen with a poached egg. He already conceded there would be no chance of keeping Kosher on this trip, so the seemingly kashrut nature of the dish excites him: besides the egg, the ramen seems to consist of only bean sprouts, bok choy, green onions, ramen noodles, and the dark-colored, savory broth. Then the sizzling soup touches his lips, and he realizes it is pork broth.
Twenty-five years old. Average height. A high-school math teacher at the Portland Academy for Tech & Sciences. An observant Jew. This is Ari Cohen. He wears small round glasses as if he is not 25 but 85, but these glasses have the opposite effect of making him look young when he removes them.
"No sit here."
Ari looks up and sees a janitor. He looks down at his steaming ramen. He looks around at the hundreds of other empty seats in the early morning airport. It could be so easy. And yet he says, "Why not?"
"I clean here." It's true. The janitor is wielding a mop and a bucket of soapy water.
"Well, where can I sit, then?"
"Over there." The janitor points towards a set of tables a little down the way. Ari can detect no difference between his set of tables and the other.
"Have it your way," Ari says, feeling American and sophisticated in his testy politeness. Holding his tray in one hand and hauling his luggage in the other, he makes his way toward the available table. The broth sloshes and spills over the rim of the bowl onto the tray. Ari settles down in a seat beside a glass railing from which he can view the passerby in the terminal below. The crowd moves slowly in the stinging brightness of morning. Ari does not eat the ramen. Mary told him she would meet him there at 7:30.
Ari begins to wonder why his hands shook and the soup splashed. There's no doubt he is totally nervous. His nerves are a complete wreck. Mary, he has not seen her in one year. Before that one year, they had seen each other either every month or every week or every day, for eight consecutive years. Of course his nerves are wrecked. They are shipwrecked. They are at the bottom of whichever ocean he crossed to get here. Ari feels like he has been at the bottom of the ocean for some time. He can do nothing but wait. That is all there is to do. At least he has all this pork to eat.
Ari met Mary when he was ten years old. He was an enormous, fat, waddling little boy. With his dark complexion he resembled a large brown egg. In fact, in an irony that did not feel particularly ironic at the time, the other boys threw cafeteria hard-boiled eggs at him. They also yanked his tzitzit and stole his yarmulkeh. Before he met Mary, there were airborne eggs, and before there were airborne eggs, there was 9/11.
But Ari lived in Maine, and what was 9/11 in Maine but a rumor? A myth? Surely when Ari did his fifth grade social studies presentation on 9/11, he did not understand the reality of the political situation. Ari's grandfather, a well-groomed European gentleman and Holocaust survivor, helped him prepare the notes. His grandfather used to drive Ari to Boston, have his photograph taken writing a large check to the State of Israel, and then bring Ari to a Red Sox game. In the presentation, Ari described the wars of the Muslims. He illustrated their desire to destroy Israel and the ensuing conclusion that people of the same religious inclination would also desire to destroy America. It was only logical.
A few weeks later, a group of boys decided Ari Cohen was full of bull-crap. Not because his politics were incorrect, but because they were a smokescreen. In fact—so the theory goes—Ari Cohen was not an anti-Muslim Jew, but rather a Muslim all along, pretending to be a Jew, so nobody realized he was a Muslim! It added up. The black skullcap. The dark face and eyes. The aversion to pork. Yes! Ari Cohen is a liar! Ari Cohen is a Muslim!
The eggs poured on. Of course, in suburban Portland, somewhere-in-Maine, the perpetrators had never seen an Arab in their lives.
The apex of Ari's torment was Halloween. An early snowstorm on the way. Ari dressed up as Dracula, his brother Noah as Thelonious Monk, only slightly more obscure. They made quite a pair, as Noah, though just two years older, was nearly six feet tall and had arms flopping around like noodles cooked al-dente. The bite of wind on flushed cheeks and ears, a wool sky. Just as they set out on their trick-or-treating, the snow began to fall.
There was a reason Ari Cohen had the courage to venture out on Halloween that night. His name was Mr. Yun.
William Sindarius Yun lived in a Victorian mansion atop a hill. The shoddy sloped yard was crowded with the writhing roots of scraggy oaks and the somber teals of wintry pines. Mr. Yun was the neighborhood Halloween royalty. He gave out King-size candy and had his house decked out like a haunted mansion. There were various rumors about Mr. Yun: that he was knighted in England, that he made his money off a pornography website, that his wife left him for Tom Cruise. And that he was a Muslim.
Ari had heard people say so, after all. Indeed, if Ari could prove Mr. Yun was a Muslim—find some inkling of Islamic practice or identity—then he just might acquit his own name.
The journey was treacherous. Ari and Noah encountered Jim Klinger and his famously trapezoidal head, appropriately framed with Buzz Lightyear's spacesuit. They saw the twins, Ashley and Mackenzie, dressed in cheerleader outfits. They saw Boba Markowicz, six-foot-four and wearing a Shaquille O'Neal Lakers jersey, thin as a telephone pole. Thankfully, none of the egg-hurlers. Ari sighed as they hiked the precipitous drive. Their damp basketball shoes slipped in the snow that was accumulating like moss in furrowed, blooming, gray mounds. The yellow winks of lamps fronting the house in the growing dark... the radio gurgle of monstrous voices over electric guitars... numbness seizing a snow-dusted nose... scarecrows and jack-o-lanterns and the tall, dark door looming monstrous, foreign, murderous, unknown.
Noah rang the doorbell.
"TRICK OR TREAT!" chortled Mr. Yun, wearing a Dracula costume of his own. It was eerily similar to Ari's, down to the cornstarch face paint and insert fangs.
"One king-size Hershey's please."
"Can I have the jumbo sour skittles?"
The exchange of candy. Long, Muslim fingers brushed up against Ari's own cold hand. Did Ari dare utter the words? If he said them, would Mr. Yun chop off his chubby infidel head with a swift stroke of the scimitar hidden in his cape? In Ari's heart an alarm bell went off, dingdingding, the bell howled, dingdingdingdingdingding.
"Mr. Yun, are you a Muslim?"
The moment Ari said the words, he regretted them, though he didn't know why. Noah and Ari peered up at Mr. Yun's starchy face and narrow eyes.
"No, Ari, I'm not Muslim," Mr. Yun said in a gentle voice.
Was that it? Mr. Yun wasn't Muslim. But Ari already knew this. Noah should've known, too. Mr. Yun wore no skullcap, did not pray five times a day, did not look Arab at all, not in the slightest. Ari himself looked more like an Arab than this tall, thin-haired Asian man. And what was the point? So that the other boys would throw eggs at Mr. Yun instead?
"Oh," Ari said, and turned around, and started to walk away. And as he began to walk away, Noah ran after him, wringing his fettuccini arms, explicating, "Holy crap, bro, what's even the point if you're just gonna ask and leave? He could be lying, bro! He could be lying," and so on, and Ari kept his head down towards the snowy ground, ignoring Noah's protests as best as he could when a small round object emerged—a powdery, furry snowball, like a white rabbit tufted and tossed—and impacted Ari's protruding rear end.
Noah curled his fists, ready to fight. Ari glanced over his shoulder, ready to run. But it wasn't a pack of boys frothing at the mouths. It was a girl.
"Why do you care if we're Muslim?" she hollered.
Mary Yun trotted up to the two brothers, who stood still, faces frozen in their respective expressions of fury and fear.
"Don't talk to Dad like that," she said. "He's sensitive about that stuff. He probably thinks you don't like him."
"It's not that," Ari stuttered. "Your Dad's the best." He clarified. "On Halloween, he's the best."
"We know you're not a Muslim," Noah said, regarding her with a suspicious eye. "Also, what the shit is up with your costume?"
Mary looked down at herself, and raised her head with a smile, as if to say, What? This? I'm so glad you asked. She was wearing an amorphous gray onesie and had a massive knapsack stuffed with pillows on her back, pasted with patterned construction paper. Twin wires of antennae jiggled on her head.
"I'm a snail, dumbass. S-n-a-i-l. Shelled Gastropod. Terrestrial pulmonary mollusk. Coiled shell. Can retract into it. Kinda oozy. Very cute. Patterned shells. The ancient Aztecs used them for divination."
She didn't seem intent on stopping anytime soon, so Noah cut in with the best retort he could offer: "Dork!"
The conversation came to a standstill. Mary stood a few feet away from Ari and Noah. On Mary's antennae, two snowflakes settled down, glistening with the lamplight of the Yun house. In Ari's mind, a furious snowstorm of cold, white, and powdery questions raged. Why hadn't she gone out yet on Halloween? What was she waiting for? Why was she trying to protect her Dad as if she was her own Dad's, well, Dad? What else did she know about snails? Can they reveal the future? Can they help you comprehend the past? What about the political situation? But before Ari was able to ask any of the things he wanted to, another object launched from gloved fingertips was soaring through the air. This object was not powdery. It merited no comparison to rabbits. It merited comparison only to itself, which was a large, brown, grade A egg. The target? Ari Cohen. The perpetrators? Joe Downs and Connor Kamens, hiding behind them in the brush with a carton.
But wait—the egg. Perhaps it could see the future. Perhaps the egg was a snail. Or there was a snail inside the egg. It augured Urumqi. It heralded Xinjiang. It divined Mary and Ari, not as separate beings, but as a single, linked entity. It charted its own course, a shelled gastropod possessed of free will. It defied Joe Downs' perfect baseball arm. It wobbled through the air. It whipped past the head of Ari Cohen, under the wriggling arm of Noah Cohen as if this were all a game of limbo, and hit, shattered, and exploded in yellow and white stars on the face of Mary Yun.
"Sorry mister," the janitor is saying. "Sorry I clean here now."
It is 7:28.
Ari looks up. Had he drifted off? But now, awake. The sunlight brighter, the airport jostling with lucid conversation.
Ari stands in a daze. What happened next? Ari felt like his skin had melted off of his body, and in the naked wind grabbed piles of snow with his bare hands and rubbed them on Mary's face to clean off the yolk. Now that made her scream. The egg didn't. The snow did. The egg simply collided with her face and made an Eggs Yolk Pollock. But then the white snow, yellow snow, screams, and Joe and Connor apologizing, and Mary explaining to them her Dad was in fact a Muslim because Ari Cohen was a Jew. But that backfired and there were death threats on the phone and Mary spent the night in Noah and Ari's basement—or were there?—it seems too extreme, too terrible, but then why was she in their basement?—and Ari remembers all sorts of other things, too. Like the graffiti. The graffiti in the high school urinal. It consisted of blood-red sharpie on the grimy tile wall, malformed letters, wriggling like angry snakes: MARY YUN. He wanted to bring himself to tell her about it at the lunch table, to tell her he smeared the bloody snakes out in a righteous storm of black sharpie but he couldn't, and now he is skiing, and when he is skiing, he is losing weight. He lost snails and eggs from his stomach and his face, his arms and legs and chest butt hands and feet. He remembers the white snow and trying to get into the lift with her on school trips and the white snow and the silence. On the lift Ari asked Mary about her mother, and Mom, well Mom she left when I was only four, I hate her, tall Mom with the golden hair because Ari saw the pictures in the gloomy mansion, the empty living room. And Ari, he remembers all of this and feels sick to his stomach, or maybe it is this goyish meat, this foul, salty goyish meat. For now he studies math, not mishnah, and is skinny, and by the lighthouse there are kisses in the summer—is it true?— kisses?—these are unimaginable for a boy who has been enormous fat waddling his entire life—and there are other memories, too, like the breathlessness of waiting with Mary for the blue loading bar, a blog, that one internet blog with that one online Cantonese novel, naam jan m ho ji kung and everything after, and since now he is in love with her, there is only "ever after." Her eyes lit up, waxed radiant when she read that novel, like a mother gazing at her newborn. Because she doesn't hate her mother any more. She has transformed a loss into a gain, and that is remarkable to Ari, more remarkable than anything, and there is Boston. There is poetry, and there is flesh, and there are protests against Israel like a heat wave, and now you are a socialist Ari? Oy gevalt, because his grandfather is dying, and the political situation moves from New York to Gaza to Xinjiang, and concentration camps (where? which? whose? how? me? now?) means three terrorists endure bullets in their brains and one French journalist a crisp expulsion from the country, her press credentials "unrenewed" because she criticized China's policy in the region of 28 "terrorists" burnt alive by flamethrowers, and THERE ARE CONCENTRATION CAMPS POPPOP CONCENTRATION CAMPS and policy and progress, economic development, the practice of Islam, his own practice of Judaism under the pressure of forces he cannot see but only feel. And that memory, that one final memory, that picnic on that cloudy day with tangerines because Mary loves tangerines; she used to eat so many she would break out in orange pimples—one memory of one picnic on one cloudy day on some damp grass, sour juice swarming mouths, tingling tongues, talking about memories of a snowball—an egg—the beauty of snails—and on that day and in this memory Ari chose his words carefully and got down on one knee. But she couldn't. She had to go to China. It was her calling, after all, but Ari doesn't have a calling; he only has her, and being alone, alone in New England, so, so alone where there are front doors and utterly no one else in the world, locked in a metal box with a front door sinking to the bottom of the sea, her presence too familiar, too intense, mounting on the submarine, the invisible pressure of skies and heavy, heavy water.
Ari wipes the sweat off his brow.
"Excuse me," he says to the janitor, who is wringing his mop. "What do you think of the... political situation here?"
The janitor doesn't look up. "It is a very complicated," he says. "You do not think about it, you not from here. You enjoy mountains and food."
Ari nods slowly. I am not from here, he thinks, so I shouldn't worry too much about the political situation. But the thoughts are flat and distant, not quite his own. He asks, "What food do you recommend?"
"Very good here is the pork. It is a tender favorite."
Ari walks away again. The weight of his suitcase, enormous. His backpack, crippling. How much did he pack? Why so many things? The heaviness of the world, shocking, infinite compared to the lightness of memory. He takes a new seat back by the ramen stand and sets his tray on the table and his luggage on the floor.
With heavy hands and heavy fingers, Ari reaches into his backpack and pulls out a tangerine. It has traveled with him all the way from Boston. He unpeels it. Orange dust clings to his nails and fingertips.
Xinjiang sunlight floods the airport. It is impeccable. The flamethrowers are somewhere else today.
He thinks about the gingery warmth of the Palau he might eat, and the flaky crust of the Pimirdin he might eat, as he waits for time to pass and bites into the tangerine.