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Friday, July 31, 2015

The Time I Saved Someone's Life


But it was a girl's life. Does that still count?

I went to Hong Kong for the summer program of my junior year. Hong Kong is the best city in the world but I can't really pinpoint why. It's like the future at 15,000 degrees. It's like living on the sun but really enjoying it because you are at the centre of everything. It's like when Kate Hudson's character in Almost Famous says "It's all happening" and it all really is. You don't feel that FOMO stress, but it's replaced by everything other kind of stress. Mostly heat exhaustion stress. The sun rose and set and the temperature never changed. It poured rain and blew a gale and the temperature did not change. There was an actual typhoon and the temperature never changed. The public payphones had touch screens and this was 15 years ago. Local calls were free, but I didn't know anyone.

The planes took off and then landed, the buses loaded and 24 hours later we were in our dorms in Hong Kong, across from a hospital, overlooking a cemetery. In our rooms there was an air conditioner attached to the wall. You fed it some coins and minutes later the room was colder than a meat locker. I returned to my room damp from a shower and nearly had a seizure. I only did that once. In the communal kitchen there was a spout which only produced boiling hot water. It was supposed to be used for tea, but I didn't get it and ended up burning my mouth. I only did that once, too.

The group broke up into cool kids and uncool kids and a whole faction of actual Chinese kids turned on their futuristic cell phones, hired cabs and loaded their expensive luggage back to their parents homes to live in splendor, never to be seen again outside class or the coolest dance clubs on the top floors of the most luxurious hotels. Oddly, for the second activity they needed white girls. Cool clubs like to have a steady complement of white women in Hong Kong. It's totally racist.

I am an uncool kid, but I like it better that way because I got the best, nicest roommate and the cool kids were always insulting each other. They had bad habits like overeating and overspending and promiscuity. One girl slept with a guy probably because he said he was pre-med (he wasn't) and then would lay in the bed while he phoned his girlfriend back home and listen to their conversation. They were kind of gross. But they weren't all so desperate. I remember one girl got drunk on Pabst Blue Ribbon (which is all they sold at the 7-Eleven) and gave me a really long speech about how I was "the driver of [my] own bus". I listened carefully and when she was satisfied I had fully absorbed her teaching, she rewarded me with a sesame seed ice cream cone. It was the Hong Kong equivalent of a soft serve vanilla cone, but it was the most beautiful light grey colour - although somewhat off-putting as food. 

However, cool girls are always a pain in the ass. They wear too much make up during the day and complain about everything and never shut up. One of the cool girls was named Quinn. I had never heard that name before but it fits my theory that your coolness is in direct proportion to the sexiness of your name. Like a boy named Jesse or a girl named Bianca, they are doomed to peak in high school. But this was university and the social experiment was entering new territory.

Quinn was a bitch to me, an Everybitch if you will; an public example of a private social agreement that it was okay to abuse me. Stand a group of Everybitches together against a wall and they will all look and behave like any old bitch. They are indiscernible, they are interchangeable. My experience with an Everybitch is going to be identical to your experience with one. 

Quinn started attacking me for – of all things – using chopsticks to eat Chinese food in Hong Kong. She was digging deep. So I avoided her. The problem, like most problems with girls, probably stemmed from jealousy. I was thinner than her, I was thinner than most people, I was almost as thin as all the Asian girls we had come with and sweating out my soul everyday just accelerated this process. And thin girls win. They win at everything. They win all the time. They win without trying. I knew it. She knew it. Everyone knew it. (God, I miss being thin!).

So Quinn railed on like the castrating harpy she was growing up to be and I ignored her. And that was that.

Or so I thought.

One of the many attractions in Hong Kong is the aquarium. It's far away, on a separate island, I think, and did I mention the day we went it was very hot? It was glaringly hot, like somehow this little island on the surface of the ocean was closer to the sun or lacked an ozone layer, or both. We ducked into the indoor exhibits, dark enclosures with glass bowls that sank down four stories filled with exotic oversized sea creatures, staring; then we would return to the cursed outside, panting and drenched. It was the kind of heat that radiates off a metal door before you touch it, like a silent fire is burning on the other side.

Someone mentioned a butterfly exhibit and when I tried to look in the distance my vision wavered and blurred, just for a moment, then returned to normal. I felt fine, great even!, but the reptilian part of my brain knew that this was too much and that I did not have long to live. It was going to take me 30 minutes to walk out of the park to an air-conditioned cab anyway, so I better start now. I said my good-byes to my group, making them promise to take pictures at the butterfly exhibit and started my slow trek up and down the outdoor escalators that hilly Hong Kong has everywhere and uses to move people. I had never seen an escalator outside and it was still a novelty. They even play relaxing music like an old-timey elevator.

Because the Chinese are an efficient people, I had to exit via the gift shop. It was open air but still air-conditioned – a unique subtropical paradox that I have always appreciated. It's so wasteful and luxurious to allow bought air to escape like elegance trumps cost. Hell, yes, let this always be so! I roamed around the aisles enjoying the cool air and eyeing the taxi stand, waiting for one to pull up before I rushed out so I could maximize my comfort. I consider myself efficient too.

At which point, I stumbled upon Quinn.

Well, I stumbled upon a crumpled person, collapsed in the corner of an aisle, breathing heavily. Her skin was waxy yellow and her eyes were not focusing in any one place, but rolling around in her head like a horse caught in a barn fire. When faced with a mean girl, my first instinct is to run away but she managed to focus on me and mumbled something about could I bring her a plastic bag? I moved to the cashier, got a plastic bag and Quinn heaved a metric tonne of vomit directly into it the moment I handed it to her. I couldn't figure out what her problem was, or why the employees of the gift shop had not tried to help her before, because she had obviously been there for a while. Could they tell she was a bitch without even talking to her? Where they that efficient?

She was embarrassed, obviously, but that shot of adrenaline did not make her feel any better. I thought she was having an asthma attack but no… I thought briefly she was drunk or high but no… She looked at me with pleading eyes.
Can you get me a cab?
This was a normal request but she seemed hesitant. She needed to be sure the cab was at the taxi stand before she would get up.
Yes, I said looking over, it's there.
Are you sure?
Yes, yes, more than one, I said in exasperation.
She got up and walked unsteadily out of the gift shop, then suddenly stopping and rocking forward and back at the very edge of the cool air, like she would die if the sun touched her.
Make sure he will take me back to the dorm, she said.
Yes, I said. I'm going there too. I had never seen a cab refuse a customer and I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to refuse us both.
She suddenly looked at me with new eyes. The dominoes were falling to place in her addled mind: I had been going somewhere myself, I hadn't just showed up to help her. 

Holy shit, was she selfish. Maybe her family still employed her nanny?

She got in the cab and spoke Chinese to the man in a clipped, Everybitch tone; or maybe that's the way its supposed to sound. Placing her hand on her forehead and her other hand on her stomach she moaned slightly.
What's wrong with you? I asked.
Heat, she muttered. It's the heat.

She was very weak by the time we got to the door and whether she needed help or was interested in being seen as a victim, she leaned dramatically on me and I took the elevator up to her room. She flopped on her bed with the Chinese housemother hot on our heels screaming at Quinn to explain what was wrong. (Maybe she wasn't screaming but that is just how it sounded. One morning I had looked out the window expecting two women to be killing each other but the sound I had heard was just two cleaning ladies greeting each other warmly.) Quinn spoke a few words and the woman returned shortly with some broken crackers in her hand and bottles of water. Quinn took the water but refused the crackers. I sat on her roommates bed and picked up a magazine.

Quinn was asleep in less than a minute and room went quiet. The housemother roomed the hall making sad, worried noises and periodically returned to try and interest Quinn in the broken crackers but Quinn was unconscious and she eventually went away. I sat in that room for an hour or more, reading the magazine. Suddenly Quinn rolled over, probably attracted by the sound of flipping pages and her eyes flew open.
What are you doing here? You can go! You don’t have to stay!

Well, thanks princess.

The force of her words tired her out and she collapsed back down and closed her eyes. The mystery was solved, she would rather die than be gracious. Classic Everybitch.
Really, she said quietly, the gravity of the situation sinking in, You can go
I smiled at her relentless bossiness, kept reading and she was asleep again just as quickly. Thirty minutes later the housemother returned with a fresh box of (unbroken) crackers and some more water.

A quiet bedroom is incredibly relaxing, especially when it is uncomfortably warm and I stayed a while longer reading some strange Chinese tabloid about tiny doll-like actresses I wasn't familiar with. But then I finally got up and returned to my room, just as the group from the aquarium was returning. They were soaked in perspiration and miserable. I asked if they had any pictures of the butterfly exhibit but they shook their heads, somewhat sheepishly.

We had to leave early, it was too hot.

Oh, I said.

In the days and weeks that followed, I never really saw Quinn that much. She was deflated, smaller. When I did, she would suddenly start shouting to the group at large, THIS GIRL SAVED MY LIFE. SHE STAYED WITH ME WHEN SHE DIDN'T HAVE TO. Even her positive comments sounded bitchy, like I was a little fool. What was unspoken but glaringly evident in her tone was the fact that she would never have done that for me.

_______________________________________________________

I am writing this story, not to brag about my superhuman kindness but to provide evidence to the Universe that rather than being 1Up on saving lives, I am merely even and the reason is this:

When I was old enough to swim on my own but too young to understand most things, I walked onto a crowded pool deck during a very busy fun swim on a hot day and noticed a small boy lying on the bottom of the pool. His eyes were closed and he had tiny bubbles around his nose. He was surrounded on all sides by bouncing hyperactive children, however, no one but me was looking at him. I walked by him, uncomprehending, and slowly entered the pool in the shallow end with all the other kids I was with. No sooner had I done this than the whistles began to blow and the pool was cleared. I remember being locked back up in the change room with all the other confused kids and I know that it took years and years for me to put the pieces together. In fact, someone had to explain it to me very slowly when I was in my mid-20s and it has taken another 10 years for me to process it.

I remember how he was lying there, like a trick, how he was right next to the wall, how he was in the shallow end. I remember he was new and that his parents had trusted the system, the lifeguards, to look after him, and how misguided that was in retrospect and how that must have destroyed them. My imagination re-created a situation where he must have swallowed water and become overwhelmed. He must have flailed around, mimicking the little psychos bouncing around him and been duly ignored. He must have been scared. I wonder did it hurt.

A little boy died that day and whether it was denial or sheer stupidity, I looked right at it and did not say a thing. I didn't even know what I was looking at and I was absolutely not responsible but it still feels awful.

Quinn was a bitch - the Quinns of the World will always be Everybitches - but the alternative to helping her will always be unacceptable.

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