Friday, Jan. 25, 2008 - 5:32 p.m.
A Caucasian man and a Chinese woman are seated next to each other in a train carriage. He is pretending to read an autobiography of China’s last emperor while she is pretending to write in her journal. He is an American doctor. She is thinking in Spanish.
The railway tracks run one kilometer above the flatness of Tibet. The dusty, yellow light of the descending sun glints off each of the train’s one hundred and eighty six west-facing windows. Higher still, a condor hovers, tracking the soundless, moving line of rectangular carriages with saccadic movements of its eyes.
He speaks excellent Mandarin, but had hired her as a translator a week ago as a ploy. He speaks to his business clients in English, she translates his words into Chinese. This allows him to observe his clients’ reaction and ascertain exactly which of the twenty-three shades of ‘yes’ they mean here in China. Then they toast and drink their whiskey too quickly. The body serves two purposes, his old professor of medicine had said, to enclose our thoughts and then to betray them by its reaction.
But after a while, observing her at work became the more interesting task. He would hold his drink to his mouth and merely wet his lips, and watch how she parsed his Neanderthal English into the nuanced intricacies of the Chinese language, how she chose one meaning over another. Wrapping her meaning around his, he thought, was the greatest form of intimacy.
She does not know he speaks Chinese, though she suspects. This sightseeing trip to Tibet is the second ploy (which she also suspects). But the relationship has ostensibly remained professional, as he had an unhappily married wife back in Pennsylvania. Neither wanted to turn into a cliché, or to deal with the consequences. He desired her presence – that is all.
He looks over at her journal. You know Spanish as well? he asks. Si, she answers with a smile. She explains that she is practicing her Spanish for a Chilean doctor arriving next month. When a random thought flowers in her head, she writes down its Spanish translation. Then the train enters a tunnel and everything turns black. She lifts her pen off the paper. The last thing she has written is: Soy humano porque puedo actvar sin prestar atencion a las consecuencias.[I am a human being because I can act without regard for consequences.]
He lets the book fall onto his lap. Everything we do is guided by the fear of consequences, the man thinks. Every action is an exercise in restraint.
One after another, the reflected light of the sun disappears from each window. In that absolute darkness, not only did light vanish – faces, bulkheads, the curved silver door handle to the dining car, names, meaning of things, also dissolved, leaving behind only thoughts.
The carriage with (what was once) the eighty-sixth window now contains two amorphous clouds of recent thought, each belonging to its respective former individual.
She is thinking only of two Chinese characters: 后 果[ consequences ]. Literally translated, they mean ‘after fruit’.
These are the thoughts that are left behind in the lightless hollow of a Tibetan tunnel. Here they will remain, shifting and becoming intertwined with one another, long after the train has passed out from the other side. After some time, the thoughts will become inscrutable, and it will be impossible to reconstruct the story of the man and the woman from examining their thoughts. Their story occurs over exactly two seconds three nights ago.
They were in a club with his clients, and she had been badgered by them into drinking a little. There was a moment when she accidentally slumped her head against his shoulder, and he let her rest her head there. Two seconds longer than if it were accidental. In those two seconds, each thought about the consequences. Everything possible was contained in those two seconds – the end of an affair, children, eternity, love (and more lies). But the wisdom to pull away is the same as the fear of the consequences, and their bodies pulled away from each other. First, they were millimetres apart, then centimeters, which in their case, is the same as any infinite amount of distance.