That old foreign woman was crying again. She sat on a bench near the clock tower where Lanling Road intersected with Nandajie. Most of the time, she was hunched over with her face in her hands. From time to time, she would peer up and glance around with eyes reddened by tens of thousands of tears. Slowly, a look of terror would creep across her face, and she would sobbing again. For the past week, Zhou Xiaolan had seen her sitting on the same bench every day. It was 12:50, and she was walking back to work after a lunch of Lanzhou shaved beef noodles. The sight of this elderly, disheveled western woman disturbed her.
For five days straight, Xiaolan saw people walk by this lady as if she didn’t exist. Her fellow Chinese didn’t bother to stop and ask her what was wrong and how they could help. In a way, she could almost understand. Maybe they were too afraid of her and their own lack of English skills. No, the foreigners annoyed her more. Quite often, she foreign business men in suits just stroll right by. So did the young interns and exchange students in their backpacks and baggy shorts. Here was an old woman – somebody’s grandmother – terrified and alone on a hot August day. Certainly one of those foreigners could stop and help their fellow expat? Then, Xiaolan felt a twitch of anger. Where was this woman’s son or grandson? How could they leave her alone like this? Why weren’t they taking care of their elders? That anger then turned into guilt. She, herself, had been one of those Chinese people that had ignored somebody who clearly in need – for five days straight. Sure, she had to get back to work. Sure, her boss liked to yell at her even if she was two minutes late coming back from lunch. No, Xiaolan reasoned. Not today. She worked at a language training center and with foreigner English teachers. Surely they would comprehend and at least have empathy?
She turned, walked over, and sat next to the sobbing woman. For a moment, she stared at the woman’s gray, curly hair and the back of her neck. A wide neckline also showed the woman’s gaunt, bony shoulders. Odd, asymmetric purple blotches marred her dried out-skin. Xiaolan averted her gaze not out of disgust, but more out of decency. It didn’t seem polite to stare. Still, she awkwardly reached out and patted the woman on her knee. “What’s wrong?
The old woman sat up and turned to face Xiaolan. Her inflamed, red eyes prompted Xiaolan to reach into her purse for a packet of tissues. She opened it and held it out to her. The old woman took a few began wiping her eyes.
“I’m lost,” she said. “I came to Changzhou with my son, and now I can’t find him.” She took a few more tissues to wipe the tears off her cheek. “I worry about him all the time.”
“What’s his name? Where does he work?” Xiaolan put her hand on the foreign woman’s shoulders and earnestly looked into her eyes. “I will take you to him.”
A few new tears leaked from the corner of her eyes. She took a few more tissues to deal with them. “That’s the problem. I can’t remember.” The old woman stared at her knees. “My memory hasn’t been all that great the last two years.”
For some reason, the small device taped near to the woman’s collar bone grabbed Xiaolan’s attention. It was a small, heart-shaped machine encased in drap, beige plastic; a small tube ran from it and through her skin and into a dark vein Xiaolan could see through pale, translucent skin. Xiaolan tried not to stare; it felt disrespectful. Instead, she looked up and made eye contact. “My English name is Lanny. What’s your name?”
“What’s your family name? Maybe I can help you find your son that way?
The old woman took another tissue and wiped her eyes. “That’s the problem. I can’t remember. My memory left me ever since I was in the hospital.”
“What’s your son like?”
“Depressed.” She took another tissue. She shook her head and blew her nose before taking yet another tissue. No matter how many she took, her eyes still looked darkly enflamed. “Drinks too much beer. I always thought he was an alcoholic, and that was before I ever got sick. Ever since we came to China a year ago, he just likes to sit behind his computer, get drunk, and eat cheese and salami on crackers.” She took another tissue. “He has no friends. He tries not even tried to make friends. It worries me a lot.”
Xiaolan thought for a moment. She wanted a physical description, not an emotional profile. Yet, as much as she wanted to help, she felt a strange, instinctual need to get away from her. She also remembered that every moment she was late would just make her boss angrier. “I have to get to work,” Xiaolan said. She thought about getting her iPhone out of her purse and checking for angry messages from her boss, but she resisted. “Please, come with me. I have western colleagues, and if you describe your son to them, maybe they can help? Maybe they will know him? Or, maybe they will know who can help you.”
The woman took Xiaolan’s now nearly empty packet of tissues and slipped them into her small black purse. “Okay.”
Both stood. Xiaolan led the way, and Elma followed. They took an escalator down into an underpass beneath Lanling Road. Small boutique shops surrounded them. The few times Xiaolan glanced over her shoulder, she noticed Elma never turned to look at the mannequins displaying local fashions. The shop selling cheap versions of traditional Changzhou combs didn’t interest her. The old woman kept her stare locked straight forward. She also never blinked. Her eyes were still somewhere between dark pink and red, but at least she no longer cried. Once they climbed a set of stairs, they walked north on Beidajie Road. Xiaolan crossed the road and cut through an almost empty shopping center where Parksons used to be. They left that, navigated though a few more side streets until they reached a decrepit building of dirty-white bricks. A door-frosted lettering read Eastern-Western Global International English Worldwide.
As soon as both of them walked through the door, a short man – with a feeble attempt at a moustache — sneered and turned on Xiaolan. He pointed a stubby little finger up into Xiaolan’s face. He shouted in Chinese: Where have you been? You have a corporate training, and the factory’s driver has been waiting. I let the foreigners get away with this because they are foreigners. You? You should know better and be on time. Xiaolan glanced over her shoulder at the elderly woman behind her. Xiaolan tried to speak, but when it came to her boss, she knew she would always be drowned out. This time, she knew something more important was at stake. But before she could interject, Elma merely whispered, “There he is.”
Elma walked further into the center. Xiaolan tuned out her boss and watched the old woman navigate the language center. All the walls were made out of glass, so anybody could see into every classroom and office. This made leading potential new students around on a tour much easier. Elma navigated these glass corridors as if she worked there. While Xiaolan’s boss continued on in elaborate detail about her “unprofessional conduct,” she watched Elma wander into Brian Brozek’s classroom and take a seat. Elma’s frown softened. She even put two elbows onto a desk and rested her chin into her hands. Her frown melted into something more friendly and loving as Brian taught. Xiaolan wanted to follow Elma into the classroom, but by now, her boss was now forcefully pushing her out of the building shouting Go! Teach! in Chinese.
Soon enough, Xiaolan found herself in a factory’s company car being whisked away from Changzhou’s downtown and towards southern Changzhou’s industrial parks. Xiaolan didn’t know what to think. She stared at her mobile phone and waited for QQ and Wechat complaints about a sick, elderly woman sitting in on English lessons. Those complaints never came. The factory training came and went. Both Elma and Brian were gone once Xiaolan returned. Throughout the day, nobody even mentioned the woman at all. Brian worked at the center part time, and Xiaolan didn’t have him on Wechat. So, she couldn’t follow up with him even if she wanted. Sure, she could have asked around for his phone number, but if nobody was talking about Elma barging into a classroom, then she wasn’t going to raise the issue. Xiaolan eventually forgot about Elma. Her own grandmother’s eightieth birthday was quickly approaching, and she had agreed to help her mother and father plan a party in her elder’s honor.
The next day, at 12:50, Xiaolan walked by the clock tower area again, and the bench was empty. It was also empty the day after that, too. She did see her again, but it was only in passing. Xiaolan had gone to the Xinbei Wanda on her day off. She wanted to buy a new pair of heels, but she found herself unimpressed by the selection available. She decided to go home empty handed, and as she walked to the BRT Bus station, dark clouds grayed out the sky. Xiaolan could smell rain.
That’s when Brian walked by. Elma followed him, and the entire time neither of them talked. A few fat rain drops began splattering against the concrete, and that coincided with a gust of wind. It was so strong it blew off Elma’s short, gray, curly hair. It was actually a wig. The head it previously hid had only patches of thin hair – some longer than others. For the most part, though, Elma was bald. The rain began to pick up, and so Xiaolan had to run to the BRT station in a futile attempt to keep dry. Slightly damp, Xiaolan sat on the B1 both going south. She really wished she had Brian’s phone number or Wechat contact. But before she could text somebody about it, her mother called regarding Xiaolan’s grandmother’s eightieth birthday party. From there, Xiaolan got caught up in event planning.
She only saw Elma one more time. It was a day that she finally convinced Hua Aiguo, her boyfriend, to relent and take her out for an expensive German dinner. They were at Jagerwirt in the southern end of Changzhou. While her boyfriend dithered over the menu and scratched his head, he looked up from time to time with pleading expressions of What is this weird food you want to eat? Xiaolan just ignored him – like she had grown used to doing. This time, the sight a few tables away captured her attention.
Brian sat opposite a slender European woman with dark blonde hair. They both were eating salads, but Brian seemed to pick at his food. It looked like he was more interested in talking than eating. Xiaolan wondered about this: Brian never socialized with her or anybody at her language center. Most of the times, he just seemed devoid of anything. He came in, did his classes and left. Xiaolan never imagined him remotely capable of even having female friends. And that’s when she spotted Elma.
She had never retrieved her wig, and her head was still a patchwork of thin clumps and thatches of hair. Brian didn’t seem to notice. He and his friend had plates in front of them. Elma did not. The two never stopped to look at Elma or even acknowledge her existence. Elma just enjoyed the smile on her son’s face. Light radiated around her the more her smile warmly grew. The light nearly became blinding. Xiaolan shielded her eyes.
“What’s wrong,” said her boyfriend.
Xiaolan pointed at Elma. “That.”
“That.” She stabbed her finger in Elma’s direction.
“You mean,” Hua Aiguo said, “The foreign couple eating salad?”
“Not them, the old woman sitting with them.”
“What are you talking about? There is no old woman. It’s just two laowai eating salad.”
For Xiaolan, the light was now blinding, but she lowered her hand to look into it. Elma was there at the center. The texture of the light fluctuated and swirled around her. It reminded Xiaolan of a whirlpool of water – but only in cloudy gradients of yellow. At the center of this vortex, Elma looked at Brian and his date. Then, she looked at Xiaolan. She closed her eyes and gave only a slight smile suggesting peace and contentment. That’s when Elma vanished.