Jacob knew that logic didn’t always rule the world; at least it didn’t use to. A decade before, as an undergraduate student on a year abroad in Taiwan, Jacob had encountered inexplicable, irrational magic. Now, as an analyst for a private equity firm immersed in a world of numbers and profit, that world seemed irretrievable.
While he had little power in his position, Jacob did manage to assert himself to get assigned to a business trip to Taiwan. He had convinced his boss, Buzz, that he could do better due diligence on a target acquisition because of his Mandarin skills and living experience in Taiwan.
‘Ok,’ Buzz had said, head shaking as if dismayed, ‘but if you make me look bad, you can forget having anything to do with Asia going ahead. I’ll never send you back again.’
As soon as Jacob stepped off the plane, he wondered if he should have lobbied so hard for this trip.
When Jacob had arrived in Taiwan as an undergraduate, it had been the end of August and the ghost month of the Chinese lunar calendar. The first few days there, Jacob had wandered the streets of Taipei, alone but excited by his exploration. The sidewalks were jammed with small tables stacked with food: oranges, fragrant cooked dishes, a large bowl of rice. The pungent smell of sweet cedar incense and orange and black wisps of flame and smoke jumped from metal cans as store owners threw sacrificial paper money into them to provide their ancestors with spending money in the afterlife. Jacob had been bemused by the practice, shrugging it off as superstition.
But on this return, stepping off the plane, Jacob wondered if he’d missed something in his dismissiveness. As soon as the warm, moist air outside the jet hit him, he sensed someone watching him. As he walked down the gangway, he looked over his shoulder at his fellow passengers and every smiling-eyed face on the ‘Welcome to Taiwan’ airport posters to see if he could identify the presence he was feeling.
Despite the passing of a decade, Jacob was amazed by how much of the airport was still the same. Same dull, cream-coloured linoleum floors, same cheap brick walls, same humidity sticking his clothes to his skin. He wasn’t much different himself, he was sure, except that his wavy, light brown hair was now thick and professionally coiffed instead of straggling down to his shoulders as it had in his student days.
As other new arrivals passed him to rush to customs, Jacob spun around, thinking he’d catch sight of a dodging figure. Was that it − just beyond the corner of his eye? Or was this unease the echo of exclamations and remonstrations from his colleagues at work? ‘Dude, you could be making so much more!’ ‘Woah, bro, you used last month’s prime rate! Fix that. I just saved your ass.’ As much as financial industry culture didn’t come naturally to Jacob, and he had to hide being gay with references to fictitious girlfriends and gender-altered conquests, real or imagined, he passed enough at work not to get harassed any more than most.
Shaking off the exhortations and passing swiftly through customs, Jacob headed to the first benefit of his job: his boss’s assistant had arranged for him to be picked up by a driver. ‘Mr. Jacob,’ the driver said, ‘give me your bag. That’s my job.’
Recalling the monstrous backpack he’d carried with him when he first landed in Taiwan, he was reluctant to let the diminutive elderly man take his laptop and suit bag. ‘No, it’s fine, driver. I can carry it,’ he said in his thick-tongued, re-awakening Mandarin.
‘You speak Chinese!’ The driver said wide-eyed and grinning, ‘Thank goodness, that makes my job a lot easier.’
On the ride to the hotel, Jacob remembered one of the reasons he wanted to come back to Taiwan. He’d forgotten how much he loved just speaking the language. To him, Chinese felt like it was processed in different parts of his brain − the parts where words are pictures and where the rise and fall of tones meant the difference between a smooth response and the quizzical look that asked, ‘Why have you just put up a stop sign in the middle of the road?’ As the driver prattled on about the economy and recently developed parts of the city, Jacob grinned as new slang and old words returned him. Looking out the car windows, Jacob tried to get a sense of how the island had changed: satellite towns now entirely urban, expensive European cars whizzing past, once shadowy mountainside temple roofs fresh with red and ochre paint.
Then there were the familiar parts. Though it had been afternoon when Jacob arrived, the sun was nowhere to be seen behind a blanket of blue-lead haze. Yes, Jacob thought, shaking his head with a bemused smile, I’m back all right. As they neared the city basin, smokestacks and mold-streaked apartment buildings sank, mired on either side of the highway. Behind the bright temples, muddy, barely green tropical forested hills rose and fell beside the road.
As they entered the city, a familiar morass of Vespa minibikes squeezed between cars and onto sidewalks, clogging the front of intersections. Jacob checked his watch as if it displayed the year; he wasn’t sure he’d ever left the island. Hospital-green lights from the ceilings of mildewed buildings began to glow. Was he a student again, returning to his apartment?
The haunting presence from the airport returned. Sitting in congested traffic, Jacob stared straight ahead for fear that a sideward gaze would be met by a pair of glowering eyes. Or maybe familiar, lost ones in a passing, speeding taxi − those of his student-self late for teaching English.
‘Your room is ready for you, Sir,’ the front desk clerk said. ‘Let my colleague show you to your room.’ As a first-timer to the hotel, he had been awarded an upgrade to a suite. This was the ‘Life of Excellence’ his energetic friend Sara had prognosticated for them as they had pondered career choices. ‘When we get jobs in banking,’ Sara had encouraged him, ‘then we’ll have our Life of Excellence.’
‘When we get jobs in banking,’ Jacob said, ‘I’ll never have to beg for rent money like my father does.’ The father who had snarled in envy, ‘You can never go home again,’ when Jacob told him he was going back to Taiwan for his job.
As Jacob passed through the expanse of the lobby, the bellhop pointed out the restaurants and the two enormous calligraphic paintings hanging above the entrance to the elevators. ‘What are those?’ Jacob asked, his attention perplexed as he tried to figure out the archaic seal script.
‘Those are protections,’ the bellhop replied. ‘Most Taiwanese know that this hotel was built on an old cemetery. Those keep the ghosts away.’
Jacob cracked his neck passing under them and he noticed his shoulders gently drop.
In his room, sleep came quickly. The following morning, after a Life of Excellence breakfast of heartwarming, half-forgotten friends − a vegetable-stuffed bun, tea eggs, and rice porridge with pork floss and sweet tofu skins − Jacob returned to his room to ready himself for the day. The phone was ringing as he rushed to open the door to his room.
He got to it in time. ‘Jacob, where’ve you been? I’ve been trying to reach you for the past thirty minutes!’ It was Buzz, checking in.
Still in the glow of his sated stomach, Jacob recounted his enjoyment of being back in Taiwan, only to be met with: ‘You need to get your head on the work, Jake. I didn’t send you there as a reward. We’ve invested in you. Your job is to make sure we don’t make a mistake with this acquisition.’
‘Of course,’ Jake said. ‘I’m on it. The car is picking me up shortly. I really should go.’
His lanky frame in a blue suit and white dress shirt capped by jostling silver cufflinks, ‘overdressed to impress’ as Buzz had taught him, Jacob made his way to the target company, a rapidly expanding motherboard manufacturer. The entire day of meetings went smoothly, with laughter and camaraderie at lunch. The finance and product management teams had made it easy for Jacob. They’d had their production figures, client lists, and projections at the ready.
After returning to his room, Jacob wrote up his notes and initial positive reactions and sent them to Buzz as a first draft of his report. He’d show Buzz he was here for work, not enjoyment. Everything will turn out fine, he told himself. It always had for him in Taiwan: like how the random act of wearing a particular shirt had gotten him an apartment when he’d arrived to find he only had five days of accommodation.
As an eager, adventuring student, Jacob had arrived at the youth hostel he thought would be his home for the year only to find they’d never gotten his faxes requesting a room. With a helpless face, he managed to negotiate a consolation prize of a room for five days, after which he’d need a new home. Registering at his school the next day, he found advertisements on a student bulletin board and followed up on every available one that day. No luck; all the landlords wanted quiet, safe female tenants.
He returned in the evening to his room dejected, trying to envision success the next day. He’d have to ask around and network with students who had been there a while. Shrugged shoulders and shaking heads led him to his last chance, ‘AC/DC,’ a pub where ex-pat students hung out. When he got there, he was intimidated. The place was a dark, raw timber, three-floor maze where friends sat in groupings around small tables cluttered with oversized green bottles of beer. He scanned the floors for anyone to talk to, but he couldn’t escape the centrifugal force of his introversion and left after thirty minutes, frustrated and disappointed with himself.
Seeking solace in the thought of milk and cookies, he dropped into a bright and expansive supermarket he passed on his way back to his hostel. As he was checking out, comfort snack in hand, he heard a nasal American voice asking in English, ‘Where’d you get that shirt?’ He turned to face a short-haired, energetic woman in the line behind him. He looked down at his beloved t-shirt − turquoise-green with a black-and-white cow silk-screened on the front − an artistic simplicity he’d rewarded himself with upon finishing the summer language programme at Middlebury. Jacob explained the shirt’s origin.
‘I thought so!’ The woman said, introducing herself as Sara. ‘I was there four years ago.’ She had a New York accent and an affable grin. ‘What are you doing in Taiwan?’
‘Trying not to end up on the street,’ he replied. ‘I get kicked out of my hostel the day after next.’
‘Well, we’ve got a couch in our living room you can sleep on until you find something.’
‘What?’ Jacob asked, sure that he’d misheard. Who would just offer a room to a stranger?
‘We all know how hard it is to get an apartment here. The couch is more like a plywood daybed. It’s not comfortable, but you’ll have a roof over your head until you find something, and you won’t have to waste your money on a hotel.’
A month later, when he retold the story to a Taiwanese student he was tutoring, the student looked at him unsurprised. ‘Well, that’s yuanfen,’ he stated matter-of-factly.
This was a new word for Jacob.
‘You two were fated to meet,’ the student explained. ‘You knew each other in a past life.’ The student explained that this more often happened in romantic relationships, old enemies that were bound together in this life to resolve the conflict. ‘But it happens with good friends too. Little signs tell you that it was meant to be.’
When he discovered that Sara had been the roommate of his college friend Patrick, who had lived in Taiwan two years before, Jacob thought there just might be something to this yuanfen. He and Sara would become best friends. Jacob was still uncertain about coming out to people at the time, but Sara had made it easy, teasing him into acknowledgement after he’d complimented a recent haircut with: ‘C’mon, Jake, the reason you like my short hair is that I look like a guy.’
As he plunged into his first few weeks in Taiwan, more fortuitous meetings of this type had occurred. He ran into people he had known from Middlebury and before, the most thrilling of which was his first Mandarin-language teacher recognising him outside the caverns of AC/DC. It was even how he’d found his painting teacher, Teacher Li, through a recommendation from Sara. She had been rejected by the teacher but didn’t know why. When Jacob had his interview with Teacher Li, the old man explained his reason for not taking Sara on: ‘Her whole body was fire. I couldn’t take that.’ Jacob knew what the teacher meant: too cheeky, and trouble the teacher didn’t want.
As unprovable as yuanfen was, Jacob became convinced of its certainty. Or rather, he tried to make sense of it and reasoned out an explanation − with so many people believing in yuanfen, it was as if it created a bubble of self-fulfilling reality on that island, like a local expression of Jung’s collective unconscious. Several million people holding this belief had the power to change reality. And here in Taiwan, there was a little pocket of a different reality that enabled people with entwined fates to meet and for happy coincidences to occur.
Ten years later, resting on his hotel bed, Jacob wondered about the presence he had felt outside the hotel. If the island bore this alternate reality, with roaming ancestral spirits and chance meetings sprung forth from an enchanted realm, then surely there was some phantom here from his earlier days.
His new formulation was a combination of yuanfen and a story that Sara had once told him. On the first anniversary of the death of a very dear uncle, Sara and a friend had seen her uncle pass by them in a crowd of pedestrians as they were crossing a street in Manhattan. ‘My friend looked at me big-eyed and said, ‘Wasn’t that your Uncle Ezra?’ It was exactly who I had thought it was, too… he’d even smiled at me. But when we turned to look back at the man, he was gone. When I told my mother, she told me anniversary sightings of the dead existed in Jewish folklore, so I was convinced.’
Rather than a chill, Jacob had felt the warmth of hope from this account. He remembered thinking that maybe someday he’d see his mother, taken early from him by cancer.
But first, he thought, he needed to find his former self.
Jacob pulled himself from the darkness at the faint sound of a ringing phone. Amidst his swirl of memories under a thick duvet that pressed his whole body into the mattress, he had fallen asleep. It was now late evening on Thursday.
‘Jake, did you not look at what you sent me?’ Buzz said, his voice too awake and sharp for Jacob to hold the phone to his ear. Instead, he pressed the speaker-phone button and returned the handset to its tray. ‘The numbers are too good. Either you’ve made another discounting mistake or they’re snowing you. In either case, it’s not good.’
‘I understand,’ Jacob replied promptly, hiding his embarrassment. ‘I’ll get to the bottom of it in my meetings tomorrow. They’re kind people and really want this to work.’
‘I don’t care if they’re kind, Jake. Of course, they want this to work! It means a lot of money for them. Don’t be naïve. Just get the real numbers and the finished report to my inbox by Monday morning.’ A tighter deadline than he’d originally been given. That gave him just the interviews the next day and his supposedly free day of Saturday before he had to head back to New York.
Jacob got off the phone and pulled at the dead brain of a laptop sitting beside him. Was he going to spend the night on his bed tapping away to please Buzz? He could, but he wouldn’t disturb his new contacts at home even though they’d told him to call any time with questions. No. The morning would be fine. He had to get out, re-awaken himself, and get some food in his body. Get Taiwan back in him.
As soon as he left the hotel, he sensed the spectre’s presence again. It wasn’t right there, but it was somewhere here in the city. If he were going to finish his job undistracted, he would have to find this double of his.
He knew where to go: his old neighbourhood. On his way, Jacob passed through a back-alley night market. As he passed racks of pink sweatshirts and stalls proffering perfect brooms and multi-coloured plastic bins, Jacob remembered the first night market he had been to, Taipei’s most famous one for gawking tourists, near Lungshan Temple. The site where libidinous middle-aged men drank snake blood for their virility before heading down the alley to a brothel.
His first night market had been like a chase scene in a horror movie. As they ambled down the lane, on both sides, hawkers’ faces lurched towards him, belting out their offerings of beeping, plastic products: clocks, noisy electronic gadgets, claw-like massage devices. The stimulation was overwhelming − gawping faces and lights moving in and out of the view of the camera lens as he panned his head from side to side.
This Friday night, the walk through the stalls was still overwhelming, and he followed an urge to get out of the beeps and whistles and flashing LEDs. Dodging night-time traffic, he ventured down an alley where he and his friends had often gone for sesame noodles, fruit shakes and ice-fruit desserts. He made his way to the noodle stand where his classmates and he would celebrate the end of the week. It was empty of clients now, a sad, desolate tomb. His growling stomach overrode the fear of eating alone, and Jacob ordered a large bowl of sesame noodles and his most beloved dish, first tasted at this very stand, hundred-year-old egg with tofu, sesame oil and oyster sauce. Jacob devoured both dishes − dousing the noodles with vinegar like he used to. Something was different, though. Every mouthful, while tasty, was missing something faint-but-essential: the flavour of ten years ago. He tried pouring on more vinegar, then more, until the noodles became an inedible mess.
Dissatisfied and disappointed, an image came to him that usually only came back in his worst dreams: nights after classes alone in his shadow-washed apartment, sitting in the darkness under a small desk lamp, practising Chinese painting brushstrokes as he waited for one of his roommates to walk through the door. If they returned early enough, they could go out. Often, they returned late and tired from teaching with barely enough energy to talk, and he would move from his desk to his bed and wait for morning. ‘The repeated strokes are the steps to mastery,’ his teacher had explained, ‘It’s your first step towards becoming an artist.’ As he sat in solitude practising, they seemed a Godot-like arrival forever on its way. As lonely as it had been, Jacob wondered why he had never tried applying this dedication to his current job.
The memory of these somber evenings jolted a realisation in Jacob. Teacher Li was the last person he knew who was still around from his time as a student. If his ghost were anywhere, it would be there. He thought of his teacher’s shop: a two-room store–and-gallery with sliding metal shutters that came down at night to double the space as the old man’s apartment. It was too late to go that night. The shutters would be down. He’d go on Saturday after he had the correct numbers and finished the report.
His Friday meetings passed with greater ease than the day before, even with his digging for sensitive information. With feigned innocence and incompetence and asking several people the same question at different times, Jacob got a clearer picture of what was going on with the business and its competitors, enough to provide more realistic sales projections than he’d given Buzz previously. The tone of voice, the hesitations, the quick switches to English when someone passed by told him he was getting what he needed. A small burst or pride rose in his chest: it was his ability to navigate these nuances that got him the figures. No amount of strong-arm tactics or barking from Buzz would have gotten them. This is where his trip paid for itself.
Satisfied that he had what he needed to turn in the finished report before boarding the plane home, meaning it would get to Buzz a day early, he smiled to himself: Hey Buzz, I’m not so bad at this stuff after all. Maybe they’d even let him make more trips like this. Maybe Hong Kong next? Maybe they’d someday let him handle all of Asia?
Despite the happy image, alone on his bed in the hotel, fatigue returned to his travel bones. He decided again to stay in, order room service, and watch a pay-per-view, violent international thriller that his office mates had been going on about.
After waking early and pounding out his report most of the Saturday, Jacob took the afternoon to walk around the newer Brand Name part of town, the ubiquitous High Street of luxury items that told the world you were on top. Jacob passed glittering watch stores and branches of British haberdashers in the grand mall of the Taipei 101 building. He had amassed a starter collection of three watches to keep up with his coworkers. For him, they had been more of an obligation than an aspiration. When he had been a student, he had bought a silver-ish fake Rolex at a night market. He didn’t mind telling people it was a copy watch. To Jacob, at the time, it was a joke, proudly acknowledging that all he could afford was a copy. But now, at work, he sported the obligatory Blue-dial of Success, and having been the first amongst his colleagues to get this model, he had brought himself a few weeks of peace from the constant locker-room trash talk and hassling that bounced off the walls of the office.
As Jacob crossed town through tight alleys hung with dusty tropical plants, chartreuse ferns and mossy concrete walls, an ease came over him. The passing scents of bananas, fried chestnut sweets and sandalwood incense soothed him.
He began to reminisce about Teacher Li, whose pedigree came from the fact that his own teacher had been the teacher of Puyi, the last emperor of the Qing dynasty. Half-Russian and half-Chinese, Teacher Li had grown up in Xinjiang, the westernmost province of China. The region was Central Asian, populated by Muslim Uighurs, colonising Chinese and the remnants of a few waves of Russian émigrés. Though not Uighur himself, Teacher Li branded his foreignness in Taiwan by wearing one of two elaborately embroidered skull caps. Jacob smiled at the memory of the teacher’s eyes getting big as he recounted tales of the enormous fruits growing in the region. ‘Larger than life,’ he would say, trying to excite his young students who repeated calligraphy strokes, obediently and endlessly, for the character for ‘Forever.’ Jacob always laughed to himself every time the teacher brought up the fruits. What is so special about fruit?
Jacob and the teacher had never been close. Sometimes the teacher even forgot Jacob’s name and would call him over by saying, ‘Hey you, that male student there.’
But there had also been times that the teacher was more warm than gruff. Sometimes he would talk about his divorced wife and daughter living somewhere in California. His friendliest times came when he talked about painting, and he encouraged Jacob with praise for his growing facility with his brush.
Jacob thought of the sheets of exercises he would bring in for Teacher Li’s review. With a red-stained brush, he’d put a carmine ‘x’ through ones that were ‘wooden’ or ‘had no life’ in them; a lucky few would be awarded a circle of approval. Jacob had spent a month making hundreds of copies of leaves, trunks, branches, and mountain cliffs. It was all about mastering the building blocks, the teacher explained. After the leaves and branches came the period of copying portions of works by master painters. The teacher would give him a plastic-covered painting over which Jacob would place a piece of rice paper and trace the picture below.
Before Jacob returned home to the States, the teacher showed him how this learning process could work for him. For his last class, Jacob brought in some attempts at art he had done on vacation in Thailand − thinking of them as a gift for Teacher Li − painstakingly slow sketches of bending palm leaves that he had hoped would impress the teacher. The teacher made encouraging noises, acknowledging Jacob had a glimmer of skill and then showed him the point of all the repetition.
‘You’ve got a sense of art,’ Teacher Li said. ‘When you’ve gotten the basics down, you can take any scene you want, any picture, and dash it off like this.’
The teacher picked out a picture of a snow-covered mountain from the Sierras and wet his brush. Then, dipping it in ink, he said as he applied it to the paper, ‘See… here you start with the cliffs… and,’ as the black paint weakened to reveal storm clouds emanating from the brush, ‘move on to the highlights and shadows.’
In minutes, the teacher had completed a Mount Whitney robust with energy and fortitude. Jacob could say nothing. ‘You get like this, and you can go home and start teaching like me.’
Return home and teach painting? What kind of bizarre fantasy was that? The thought of being an artist, while something his mother had forecast to be his future, had faded from his desires when he was a teen. What he did was sketch. What he did was doodle. He loved it, but he had never thought of pursuing it as a life passion. Or maybe he had, but it was something for his eighties, not his twenties. Jacob had to get a job and pay off his loans. Jacob wanted a life of ease, not nights on a studio floor like Teacher Li, trying to sign-up more students so that he could make his rent.
But now, realising he had paid off the loans and some savings, Jacob reconsidered the idea of the life of a painter. An accomplished Chinese painting artist. Why not that? Still speaking Chinese, still creating. A similar vision had appeared when he signed his contract with the first investment bank to recruit him, but the wisp of an image sputtered to nothing as soon as the pen left the paper. Where is that Jacob?
After the afternoon of window shopping and a vegetarian cafeteria dinner as good as in his student days, Jacob proceeded on his mission to Teacher Li’s. Just blocks from the shop, the haunting seeped back into his consciousness. The evening light reminded him of the wet, cold February nights when he used to go for his two-hour lessons. The tops of buildings vanished into the dark rainclouds blanketing the city. The lights of passing cars stabbed at his eyes and the neon signs that littered the city shouted at their usual volume. As he neared the store, a sudden trepidation stopped Jacob in his tracks. What if the teacher had died? What feelings could he recover facing a store that was no longer there? Did he want to risk the disappointment? Jacob started forward again. Whatever the scene, he had to confront it.
As he neared where his classes had been, Jacob was stopped by another thought: What if the teacher IS there? What would happen then? The man had been in his late sixties even back then. He had been forgetting not just Jacob’s name but other students’ names and even how to write some Chinese characters. Certainly, he wouldn’t remember Jacob. But if he did, what then? What kind of conversation would they have? Jacob imagined the awkward conversation, ‘Hi, I’m back here on business and don’t do Chinese painting anymore.’ The teacher would probably reply, ‘Unh-hunh,’ and they would have nothing to talk about.
Despite his doubts, Jacob persevered and arrived outside the shop. At the door, as there had been years before, were the shoes of students, seven-, nine-, thirteen-years old. Keeping his distance, he peered in. Parents stood behind their children, pointing over their shoulders at their mistakes as they diligently attempted Chinese characters or flowers, leaves and birds. ‘Pay attention. Teacher Li will be disappointed.’ Jacob could hear the parents’ words from ten years before. One student was at the teacher’s table getting his work evaluated, the teacher’s brush still stained with the same thick red paint of judgement.
Scanning the scene, Jacob was sure: My ghost is here.
He looked in more intently. He couldn’t see the whole room from his vantage point. At first, he couldn’t even see the teacher. Maybe somebody else had come to take his place? Maybe he had died. Maybe this was a whole new era?
But then, partially obscured by a beam, Jacob saw a nodding black-and-turquoise skull cap. Jacob stood a few yards from the door in the shadows, just watching, hoping he could not be seen from inside. He stood there frozen. If he went in, he would disrupt the scene. Parents would make a fuss to make the foreigner feel comfortable and enjoy the spectacle of his reunion with the master.
As he had done in the past, and had done with all his students, the teacher would talk about Jacob in the third person while he was right there in the room, as if he weren’t present, not looking at him, just talking about him. ‘This guy was my student several years back… he studied landscape painting with me… he was here studying Mandarin.’ Jacob would not get to speak for himself. He would stand mute while the teacher spoke for him. It was a strange habit he had never quite gotten used to, like being partially invisible.
Jacob stood still in the half-light. The faces of the people in the room remained blocked by gauze curtains and the rickety, sage-coloured door and window frames. He strained to look around the room without being seen. He couldn’t see it, but his fingers tingled at the sensation that his ghost was there among them, coming by weekly for classes.
Jacob stood at the edge. If he looked in further, he would see everyone in the room. If he looked in further, he himself would be seen.
Then, perhaps brought by the light of a passing car, Jacob saw the flash of his figure in the window. He stepped back suddenly. There it was. Dark with shadow, the flash of an eye swallowed in silhouette. Was that a curl of his former longer locks too?
With a shiver, Jacob retreated, both relieved to have found himself and scared to see the apparition again. It was there. He was there. It came to him: they both needed to let go.
Thinking of Teacher Li’s fruits, Jacob knew what he needed to do.
Once, ten years before, when he had gone shopping with Sara, they had gone into a fruit store and come out laughing. How random the stores in Taiwan were, they had joked between themselves: ‘Hi,’ they had imitated being a fruit store owner, ‘come in… here we sell fruit… and incense.’ It had seemed so hilarious to them then. Why did stores have such random items in them? Now it made sense to him. On the tables of offerings to ancestors, next to burning incense, there were always plates of stacked fruit.
This night, however, was a December, long after the ghost month and the sidewalk offerings to the ancestors.
Jacob stepped into a fruit store and purchased a bright orange and another small package. Exiting, he found his way through a labyrinth of alleys until he arrived at a storm drain in front of his old apartment − the one he’d seen a mother help her toddler pee into ten years before.
With a quick flick of his thumb, he lit a match from his package and held it to the edge of the sacrificial money accompanying the orange. But something wasn’t right.
Quickly, before all the yellow bills had caught fire, he pulled away half the stack.
It wasn’t time to say goodbye to his ghost, he realised. He still needed some part of his old self. He still needed Taiwan. He still needed the joy of speaking Mandarin. He still needed to paint. Most important of all, he still needed the irrational.
Maybe, he thought, fearing mistakes in his report to Buzz, this one or one in the future, I’ll have to become that painting teacher. Maybe he could find a boyfriend and be open about it? Maybe Taiwan would never feel the same: landscapes change, people vanish. Maybe he could ‘never go home again,’ but he could always move forward. Some power of yuanfen would change his life again.
As the flames from the half-stack warmed his cheeks, he intoned gently, ‘Here’s to you, Taiwan. Here’s to you, younger Jacob. Live on forever in prosperity.’
Putting the other stack in his pocket, he said, ‘And these, my dear double, come back with me to the States. I think I’m going to need you.’
Silver TV waves from his old apartment glowed through the metal cage of the terrace three flights above. Jacob took in a deep breath and exhaled as the final ashes fell into the trickle of water below the grate at his feet.
‘Onward, Jacob,’ he whispered to the ashes. ‘Onward to the sea. Always forever on.’
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