I am too captivated by my ruminations about the painting on the wall in the Chinese restaurant, the way it takes up each inch like wallpaper would, to focus on anything else.
“The Great Wall of China, painted onto a wall. Consider that for a moment,” I say to the Taiwanese girl behind the register. Her skin is not yellow, I think. It’s just the lighting. It’s always the lighting.
“Gyoza just makes sense then, when you think on it. And sticky white rice into the bargain. Evocative things to spur me on for the journey, you know?”
“Uh, okay,” she replies. “Five ninety-five is your total. I’ll bring it out to you.”
I hand her the ransom.
At my table, there at the foot of the eastern end of the Great Wall, my teeth don’t feel ready for mastication. Too masochistic, I think, because my saliva isn’t even wet. I bet the others can hear me swallowing. I look around. There is only one other pulse in the place, a cowboy in the corner near the west end of the Wall.
“Excuse me,” I say to him. His spurs click on the tile floor as he turns away from his rainbow rice and plump larvae rolls to look at me from beneath the brim of his over-sized hat.
“You’re sitting awful close to Tibet, you know.” I gesture to the terrain behind him, nod knowingly.
“Tibet?” he says, then grunts as he’s turning to make sense of my blather because a grain of rice has gone down the wrong passageway, a happenstance occurring somewhere down there in the darkness betwixt the trachea and esophagus. Damn that’s a weird word. Es-o-pha-g–
Oh shit! I think. He’s going to self-immolate! Kerosene fumes creep into my nose and singe the little hairs that grow there. Suddenly there’s a rush of heat and concern.
“Don’t do it man! It’s not worth it!” I blurt out. “You’ll just end up on the cover of some American rock album, you know. The Chinese government will censor the story. Little kids will idol–”
“Son, what in Sam Hi–”
“Your gyoza and rice,” interrupts the girl. She tosses the plate down rudely, ignorant to the cordiality that should accompany exchanges like this, exchanges between two gentlemanly strangers over hot food in grubby Chinese restaurants tucked between pawn shops and bodegas.
“And hot tea please,” I say. I look down. The steamed dumplings are writhing like banana slugs out of their shells. I hold one between my wooden tweezers and make my best John Wayne:
“Where I’m from, snails come out when it rains. You can hear shells crunching under foot well into evening. A proper massacre, each and every time. Damn shame, I say. Damn shame.”
The light is dim and the cowboy isn’t there to take in my triumphant grin. He’s eaten and gone. Only the bitchy teenager manning the register is there, the not-really-yellow Taiwanese girl, mumbling into the phone and eying me in her peripheral vision. The silence around me grows larger, takes on the hum of the neon sign in the window, crescendos behind my eyeballs and inflates them like clown balloons.
And then I feel my teeth again, tingling at their roots, threatening to go rogue.
I think I’ll eat now.