One Night in Ürümqi – Ch. 11

I didn’t remember the drive home. I assumed it was very late. I remember falling down from Aziz’s Land Cruiser in a daze, something shucking my skull. The oyster-like mass inside, my mind, ached. I had a mindache. I remember staggering into the chilly embrace of the cold fog advancing on Rihangül’s apartment complex.

We exchanged exhausted hosh amzas (“until next times”) with Ahmat and Colonel Aziz. They didn’t even set foot out of their machine. The hosts and their guest were zonked.

Rihangül and I loitered at the spot on the sidewalk where her friends had first rolled up. Now a fire burned there, its fiery arms reaching into the fog. One of the sheep carcasses had been converted into kebabs and soup. Their fragrant smoke and steam mixed with the thick night air. The sheep’s hide lay in a pile, its head balanced on top.

An Uyghur man tended to the food, clad in a traditional dark suit, a dopa, and a bushy moustache—the uniform of Uyghur men of the streets. His children and a blood-and-soot-coated knife swung from his waist. The children observed us with their prescient eyes.

Up above stared the moon, full and amber through the coal-soiled clouds. The first such lunar appearance since I had arrived and a grand one, soon to be rubbed out by those same clouds. Thoughts as dense as the fog that was reaching into every corner of Ürümqi crowded my mind. Had I passed their tests? Was I man enough? Was I suitable for marriage? Could I fit in? Could I restrain myself enough to get along? Did I offend anybody? Was I a trophy? Did I represent my country well? Rihangül wrapped her arm around mine, and we entered the embattled gate, turning onto the winding path that innervated the austere complex. We passed a monkey metal, faux–Han Dynasty gazebo, crossed a cold gray square encircling a fountain gone dry, and came to the entrance of her building.

She handed me her keys, and I opened the door. We entered, trailed by a small bank of fog, and trudged up the stairs to her apartment, where we stood in silence. Rihangül swayed in and out of a shadow, her eyes falling sad. “Good night,” she said, her voice low. “Sleep well. I hope you enjoyed yourself Andrew guy. My friends they really like you.”

She pulled away and vanished. Her footsteps receded into the stairwell. The entrance door squeaked open on its cheap springs then slapped shut, almost in spite, as all doors seem to in Ürümqi. I had hoped we could share the same kind of freewheeling times we had shared in New York here in Ürümqi, but it could never happen. Rihangül had to keep me at a distance. The culture demanded it, and I couldn’t blame her.

She would return to her family’s apartment in an adjacent building, its rooms filled with slumbering piles of brothers, sisters, mother, nephews, and her new niece, Zumret, a rosy-cheeked, living cherub. The day of the week and the family mood would determine their sleeping combinations. They would be disrupted or soothed by their mother’s snoring or Abdul’s restlessness. Where would Rihangül sleep tonight? Who would she lay her head next to as a comfort, advisor or advisee, or for late-night banter? She would have her choice. The feeling Rihangül pined for was a feeling I had left behind long ago. A Dutch word best describes that comfortable feeling: gezellig—the ideal domestic setting, cozy and inclusive. She would be gezellig with her family. I would sleep alone.

To me, the difference between imagination and a dream is I seldom dream of a place if it doesn’t exist somewhere. My rented apartment at 106th and Columbus, New York City, the United States of America, my distant home, seemed like a dream.

I stared at Rihangül’s door; it stood familiar, part of the same dream, in the same orientation in her building as mine was on the now sunny side of the earth. The number on it was the same too: 5. I might unlock the door to Apartment 5, push it open, appear in my foyer, pull off my boots, stumble through my hallway, slip across my living room floor, strip off my clothes, slide into my own bed, and wake the next morning to the dim New York sun of autumn. Perhaps with a hangover. The logic of a dream.

You can take the girl out of Ürümqi, but you can’t take Ürümqi out

of the girl . . .these words repeated in my mind like the chorus of an

unfulfilled song. Our times together were like disjointed scenes out of two other people’s lives. Not the two of us, but two people from the same dream. I wished Rihangül would surprise me by coming back to her apartment. I couldn’t remember how we had met or why I had come here, but I knew someday I would return to Ürümqi.

I remembered how I could at the age of four unfold and read a map of the world. To this day I have difficulty folding any map back up. Something inside me wants it to stay open. Rihangül’s coming home had become part of my ongoing departure . . .