Today, in a Chinese city of fifteen million people, I step onto the biggest airplane I’ve ever seen, spend thirty of the most uncomfortable hours of my life running to gates and hitching connecting flights, and finally settle down into the back seat of my mother’s car.
I have been studying overseas for six months, and I have never felt so torn. In the black night as we drive the eighty miles home, I try to sleep, but every time I close my eyes, I see the faces of friends I will never see again. We all said we’d find each other again someday, somewhere, maybe in Mumbai or Singapore or Istanbul—hell, maybe even back in the filthy streets of Dalian or Beijing—but I know better. Back in the Midwest, snow is on the January ground, and I can once again see the stars from my middle-of-nowhere home. I feel far away from everything. I make no sound. For the last few days, I have longed for home, for family, for a bed with a mattress, and a view of trees with green leaves. It’s a strange, uncomfortable sensation to feel comfort neither here nor there, to want nothing more than to go and also to stay.
At home, I sleep for two whole days. My biological clock is broken. My mother wakes me to make sure my heart is still beating. I tell her I am unsure. My bedroom is unexpectedly familiar, dull. When I came back from the East, I hoped to be surprised by the person I was before. I secretly longed to be like someone awaking from a coma or cryogenic hibernation who returns home to find that he remembers very little about who he once was. I imagined myself sifting through my own belongings as a stranger, struggling to piece together stories from a former life from nothing more than photographs in dark wooden frames or coins in a glass jar. But nothing has changed. I still remember where to find socks, favorite shirts, CDs. I left Missouri so I would come home and find that everything had changed, that I’d forgotten it all, but I was wrong. Everything is still the same. Even me.
I am depressed. I miss the energy and the smell of the city. I look out my window, hoping to see hundreds of people I will never meet, talk to, or see again, but all I see are open fields of white and Charolais cattle nosing around in muddy patches of snow. Missouri has never felt so lonesome. I think about my friends on the other side of the world cramming themselves into city buses, eating at unusual restaurants, trying to communicate with taxi drivers with nothing but severely broken Mandarin and hand gestures. I smile and remember the life I led just a few days before, the same funny things, but they feel like dreams and become foggier and foggier the longer I am awake.
I have lost all sense of the comfort of home, and I fear I may never find it again.
Some old friends, real country boys I grew up with, drive out to the house and pick me up. They’ve planned a night out at the deer cabin, and they want to hear about all the little “Chink gals.” I’m torn between offense and ennui. Nothing can ever be explained. I would rather not talk about any of it.
They take me out into the snowy woods for the night. Three of us ride in a small truck, and scents of tree bark, wet dirt, and fire smoke linger in the air. As we drive through a field and stop to unlatch three gates, I see the moonlight has covered the landscape in the same blue hue often used in nature calendars for the month of December—a solemn blue night scene to symbolize the death of the year. As the truck pulls up to an open spot in the field, there are others waiting for us, feeding wood to a huge bonfire out in front of the old wooden cabin, which is inhabited mainly during deer and turkey hunting seasons, with its patchwork tin roof, wooden stoves, kerosene lamps, and mismatched antique furniture. All around the 2500-acre piece of land are food plots, deer cameras, hunting blinds, and other things I don’t know much about. But I have spent many nights at the cabin over the years, just hanging out around the fire, listening to my friends, the outdoorsmen, tell stories of the hunt. A lone liberal amongst rural conservatives, I was the only one who didn’t hunt, but my disinterest was never questioned. We had grown up together over fifteen years with other things in common—schoolteachers, summer jobs, and baseball. We knew everything about one another. We were like brothers.
The fire outside the cabin grows tall and bright, and no one can stand too close to its heat. A few of us stand with our backs to the flames, turning like sausages when one side becomes too hot. There are eight of us out here, the sun has long gone down, and someone asks about the skillet’s heat. Chad violently shakes meat in a ziplock bag full of breading and yells that we’re going to have a feast. I ask what’s on the menu. Suckers, rabbit, venison, turkey, dove breast wrapped in bacon, chips, and cans of Coke. Garret even brought some crow meat in reminiscent celebration of a disgusting dare I had taken a few years back. He promised to eat it with me this time, to share the grotesque glory. They had been saving all this food and planning this night to celebrate my return from the East. For the first time in a week I smile and laugh and dodge surprise swats to my groin. We laugh and wrestle. Their voices are so incredibly familiar.
Around the fire we sit on pieces of wood or in camping chairs, our laps holding Styrofoam plates. A few boys eat within earshot on a wooden porch swing to keep an eye on the meat still in the deep fryer. They ask me about China, if I was a giant, if I ate any dogs or cats, and more questions like that, but they also ask where I lived, what the Great Wall was like, and if the food was any good. I give them my answers and tell them in my best words what life was like there, what my experience had been, what it meant to me. I let them know I am still trying to understand it all myself. They listen in near disbelief, say the things I am telling them—some of my stories—are hard to believe or crazy, some sound like fun, but my friends make it clear that they could never do it, that they could never go off on an airplane over the ocean to such a strange place away from here, that they could never leave this land or their families for any period of time or accept any danger of maybe never making it back. Too much at risk. Too much to lose. They would be here forever, but they would gladly listen to my stories when I had them to tell.
We eat and eat. My friends cook fresh meat like five-star chefs. They talk of different culinary oils, meat rubs, and the cooking herbs they grow in small gardens and on windowsills. They have honed their outdoor skills throughout their entire lives, and I have always been fortunate enough to reap the rewards, the edible final products. This is the first time I have eaten a hearty meal in more than half a year. “You’re skinnier’n a snake,” they tell me. We each eat twice our fill, and there is leftover food we will take home to our families tomorrow.
A few friends disappear around the back of the cabin as some of us are packing leftovers. A minute later, I hear laughing and look over to see them coming around the corner of the cabin pushing the golf ball cannon Chad and Adam’s dad built. Their family owns the cabin, so I have seen the black iron contraption before, with its heavy chase and dark bore. It’s secured somehow to an axel between two old bicycle wheels and has some other pieces of metal rigged up to absorb the kick—no doubt a personal project their father created during down time at the local steel plant where he’s worked for over thirty years.
With the cannon in place, Garret brings over a square hay bale and places a rotting pumpkin on top of it. Chad explains they had been saving the pumpkin for this occasion since Halloween, even though their mother complained of the flies it attracted to her porch. They pour black powder down the barrel and shove a white Titlist golf ball inside. Everyone stands back and covers their ears as Chad touches a fiery stick to the vent. Nobody sees the golf ball. The pumpkin explodes and a resounding boom travels across the fields and meadows where it will be heard miles away and someone will undoubtedly call the local police department and complain. Slimy chunks of pumpkin rain down all around us, onto our shoulders and into our hair, and we laugh. Chad and Adam tell a story about a neighbor more than a mile away who had found a lone golf ball in his field while out walking. They swear it had to be theirs.
The cold night gets colder. Once the cannon is wheeled back around the cabin, we all go to warm ourselves near the fire and talk some more. The focus shifts from my adventures in China to deer hunting, then to duck calls, then to crappy beds. I am happy to listen and watch my friends laugh and carry on, telling their own stories. Looking around, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot out here in the middle of nowhere—an old cabin, a snowy woodpile, a couple of old rusty burn barrels, a saggy barbed-wire fence—but still, I cannot imagine myself never being here again.
Talk dwindles and we begin to nod off in our camping chairs, so we rise and surrender to the cabin. There is no electricity and only an old pot-bellied wood stove for heat, but the beds and down mattresses strewn throughout the rooms are covered with heavy homemade quilts to keep out the cold. Two hours before, Chad had built a fire in the stove to warm the cabin. We find our places on bunk beds and on couches, and Chad, the oldest of us, argues and wins his spot closest to the hot stove. I follow my two closest friends up the homemade ladder to the attic that holds the stove’s rising heat, where, in two beds, a few boys can sleep “pole to pole or hole to hole, just not pole to hole,” as Adam chimes like clockwork, an essential piece of his camping dialogue. The three of us laugh, having heard him deliver the line so many times throughout the years. The fire outside is still burning brightly, and light from the yellow flames enters though the small attic window and dances on the low ceiling. There are spider webs in all the corners, everywhere. Garret recalls a time a few summers back when we all ran out of the cabin in the middle of the night and slept in our trucks because the cabin was full of brown recluses. We share a nervous chuckle.
Once our bodies settle into the feather mattresses and under the heavy quilts, we talk quietly for a bit, retell old stories. As usual, Adam falls asleep first. After minutes of silence, Garret asks me if I miss China. I tell him yes, that I do, but maybe not as much as yesterday.
Without speaking, he and I listen to the fire outside crackle and die down. The wood is burning away, and early in the morning when we awake to a cold stove and pull the quilts up over our numb faces, ash, smolder, and blackened Coke cans will be the only signs of our time.
Justin Kingery recently completed the coursework for a PhD in Technical & Professional Discourse at East Carolina University, where he also taught composition and nonfiction writing, and soon after left academia to pursue a career in writing in his native home state of Missouri. His essay published here was originally written in 2006, after a study-abroad experience in Dalian, China.
Read our interview with Justin here.