The officer’s face was rotund as a boiled dumpling, extra skin bunched below his jaw. His glasses flashed as he held up a stack of witness statements and glanced over the penciled Chinese characters, the red ink of name chop stamps. He hummed softly to himself and then looked back at Jacob.
“We should help each other,” he said. “I think you will not like the jails in Taiwan. Maybe they will be not be so comfortable for you.”
Jacob was in the back room of the police station, seated beside Mei Ling on an old sofa. Across a coffee table sat an unsmiling lineup of cops, though the dumpling-faced officer seemed to be the only one of them who spoke English. There was a hole in the cushion to Jacob’s left, a spring crimping out through the opening. To keep his jeans from being punctured, he had to practically lean over onto Mei Ling. He glanced down at her legs, glossy in a black spandex skirt, for maybe the thirty-ninth time that night.
The officer stifled a yawn with his hand. “Please just to tell the truth of what happened and we can all go home for some rest.”
Jacob needed to concentrate on the present moment, he knew, but Mei Ling’s legs kept bringing back the memory of her skin, butter-sleek on his hands.
“We must work together,” said the officer. “My colleagues will never accept this statement.” He smacked at the stack of papers as though swatting at an insect.
Jacob’s own legs were cramped from sitting for so many hours. He couldn’t move, even as the world seemed to blur with motion around him. His stomach had that Space Mountain sensation he remembered from Tokyo Disney: that moment when the roller coaster hurtled suddenly down into blackness, schoolgirls screaming and flailing their arms.
Earlier that afternoon, a team of foreign affairs police had conducted an undercover operation at Wonpro English. The sting featured a pug-nosed pregnant sergeant, who observed classes under the pretext of looking for a kindergarten for her unborn child, then came out into the main office and pulled out her badge.
Jacob was teaching Wombat Class, as the newest pre-k group was called, when it happened. All the classes at Wonpro were named after Australian animals: Kangaroo, Kookaburra, Emu. Just before the call came, they were playing a game called Robot, in which the teacher stands inanimate, and his students control the movements of his body.
“Raise your right hand!” shouted little Aretha. Jacob shot his arm into the air, making gadget sounds.
“Raise your left hand!” said Otis. Jacob’s favorite part of the job was that you got to pick out English names for new students in your class.
“Beep Joooop!” Jacob answered. The room filled with unabashed three-year-old giggles.
That moment, he heard Mei Ling’s voice crackle through the intercom, and he almost fell to the floor from the sound.
“Jacob please come to the office. Now.”
On his way into the office, he tried to catch Mei Ling’s eye, but she just looked down at her desk. Then someone was holding onto his wrist, and the pregnant sergeant slid a pair of handcuffs onto him. Before he knew what was happening, he was in a locked cruiser, steel wire enclosing the back seat, traffic haze giving way to thick jungle outside the window.
As far as Jacob could make out, the charges seemed to be teaching with an invalid work permit. Not that anybody in Taiwan could say what a valid permit even looked like. Legality was a slippery concept here; every school he ever worked for cut corners with visas, and he couldn’t name a single foreigner in this city who didn’t pick up extra hours on the side. So something else must be going on.
He shifted his weight back and forth on the sofa, fighting the impulse to glance back down at Mei Ling’s legs by forcing himself to look around the room. Behind the sofa, he saw several goldfish swimming around a fish tank. From this distance, he couldn’t be sure if there were six or seven of them circling the murky water. So he stood up and walked over to the tank to get closer look.
“I think you will be very uncomfortable in the handcuffs again,” said the officer. “Please sit down.” He smiled warmly. “I want you to feel comfortable.”
“This is crazy,” Jacob said. “I’m calling the embassy. Where is the phone?”
The officer tittered, the way people here laughed whenever you did something irrational, foreign. “That will not be necessary,” he says. “We only need to – how do you say? – clarify some parts of your statement.”
Jacob rubbed his hands on the outside of the fish tank, and then smeared the cool moisture on his face. “You can’t do this. There are laws.”
“And if we follow the laws, you will be in jail. Call the embassy if you want this.”
Jacob sat down.
The officer smiled, reaching across to offer Jacob a cigarette. “I’m glad you are a reasonable man,” he said. Then he picked up the stack of statements again and considered them briefly before dumping them into a pink plastic trash bin.
“Now. Another time please to tell me how many foreign teachers work for Mr. Wonpro Lee.”
“I – ” Jacob looked back towards Mei Ling, sitting on the sofa “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
The cops said something to each other in the Taiwanese dialect, and rest of them stood and walked out, leaving only Jacob, Mei Ling, and the dumpling officer. Mei Ling turned, looked him straight in the eyes for the first time since that night at The Five Senses, but there was something different, something sad in her expression.
“Whatever you say, it won’t change your situation,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t understand.”
She leaned in, her breath tickling his face, and whispered in his ear. “Just tell them the truth.” Then she stood up, leaving him alone on the sofa. When the door opened, he could hear the whir of typewriters and shuffling papers out in the front room of the station. Then the door creaked shut, and the officer leaned back in his chair.
“Perhaps,” he said, “you are not telling the story right. Maybe you are making a mistake?”
Jacob sat forward on the sofa. “Possibly. Yes. What kind of mistake?”
“I can suggest some of the details you might have forgotten.” The officer opened a desk drawer and pulled out another witness statement, this one typed in immaculate rows of characters.
That moment, the door opened again, and Wonpro Lee strutted in, his suit silken and impeccable. The police officer quickly opened a desk drawer and tossed in the statement.
“What are you up to here?” Wonpro tapped his cell phone across his chest. “I’ve called some people I know in the foreign affairs ministry.”
The officer jiggled a cigarette loose and offered the pack to Wonpro.
“There is the matter of the fine to be negotiated.”
Jacob listened, glancing back and forth between the two of them. He had often found it useful to fake incomprehension of Mandarin. For instance, whenever a traffic cop pulled him over on his Vespa and asked for a driver’s license, all he had to do is shrug and answer in English. They always got embarrassed and let him go.
“And the Canadian?” Wonpro asked. “What happens to him?”
“That depends on the fine, of course.”
“Keep costs low. Foreigners are easy to replace.” Wonpro smiled, walking over to Jacob.
“You don’t have to worry,” he said, patting Jacob on the shoulder. “I’ll take care of this.” Then his phone rang and he glanced down at the screen. As he hurried towards the door, he turned back to Jacob.
“Whatever happens, don’t sign anything until I get back,” he said. “Trust me.”
After the door groaned shut once again, the officer pulled out the witness statement back out and slid a cigarette between his lips.
“Ni yao bu yao?” He offered the pack to Jacob, winking.
“Bu yao. Xie xie,” Jacob answered, shaking his head.
So this interrogation was just part of the process of bargaining for a bribe. Jacob was relieved to understand his own insignificance.
The cigarette dangled between the officer’s lips as he searched for a match. After a minute, he gave up and settled into his chair.
“I can see,” he said, “That you are smart.”
“I just want to get out of here soon,” Jacob answered.
“Smart,” said the officer. “This is what we all want.” The unlit cigarette bounced as he speaks.
“What do you need from me?”
“This statement includes some details you are forgetting. We just need you to sign.”
Jacob closed his eyes and leaned forward, staring hard at the stack of papers. “What does it say?”
The officer finally found a matchbook in his chest pocket. He closed his eyes and inhaled, holding his breath for a long time.
“It says that you want to go home,” he said.
Jacob hesitated, breathing deep, remembering Mei Ling’s words, her breath on his face. Cigarette smoke curled slowly over their heads as he reached out for the pen.
* * *
The next morning, as Jacob drove for the last time through Taipei, he felt soothed by the traffic. The usual swarm of vehicles reminded him that, for everyone else, this was just another day. Scooters zipped past, cutting between luxury cars and careening taxicabs, accelerating into the gap between curb and public bus. An old man flew by to his left, wearing one of those cellophane-thin rain ponchos you buy at Circle K. Six gas tanks were piled on the back of his Yamaha, held in formation by a single piece of twine.
Driving in Taipei is a wholly absorbing activity, Jacob wrote in one of those early letters to his mother. Somewhere between Zen meditation and a video game. Back when he was fresh-off-the-boat, he went through a phase of concocting clever observations in his letters home, trying to make her understand how utterly crazy this place was. Only somewhere along the line, he switched to telling stories about some crazy place called Moose Jaw in order to pick up Taipei girls at The Five Senses. He wondered which girls he would be telling stories to next, and where, but he tried not to linger on the thought.
When the dumpling officer had handed back his passport last night, he gave Jacob twenty-four hours to leave the country, not enough time to ponder much of anything. Jacob knew he wouldn’t be going back to Canada, of course. Maybe Bangkok? Kuala Lumpur? Seoul? He had a bit of cash saved, and he’d have time to figure out his destination when he got to the airport.
He concentrated for the moment on turning onto a side alley and, for the last time ever, looked for a parking space near the train station. Eventually he managed to squeeze in next to a trim 50 c.c. Honda Sniper. There was a slogan in fluid script on the side of the scooter:
We reach for the sky.
Neither does civilization!
He pulled on his backpack and glanced back at his Vespa, wondering how many days it will sit there before some kid stripped it down for parts. And then he considered the improbable pile he left out on the sidewalk when he left his apartment this morning: that suitcase full of wrinkle-free dress shirts, that mini fridge full of Taiwan beer, edamame, and Häagen-Dazs, that stack of novels he never got to, that little log of hash wound tight in plastic wrap. What kind of lives would these objects lead from now on? Jacob wished he could hide behind the noodle shop and watch, but he had only nine hours to catch a flight out of here, to disappear.
On the corner where the alley met the main thoroughfare, he passed an old woman selling shengjianbao from a cart. Rain pounded onto a sheet of clear plastic above her. Today, the sesame smell of these fried buns made him want to cry.
“Duoshao qian?” he asks.
“Wu kuai.” The woman held up five fingers. “You speak Mandarin is very good.”
The meat filling burned his mouth as he joined the stream of traffic moving towards the Chunghsiao East overpass, a footbridge spanning from the Mitsukoshi Department Store to the train station. A pool of rainwater had formed on the bridge, and the lunchtime crowds jostled their way through. A businessman clenched his briefcase in his armpit as he rolled up his trousers, preparing to slosh into the water. People elbowed towards the puddle’s edge, claiming space in the downpour with their umbrellas.
To survive the sidewalks of Taipei, Jacob wrote in another letter to his mother, one must master the subtle art of umbrella chicken. But he didn’t write letters any more, didn’t have anyone left who would bother to read them. So he never got a chance to explain what he learned about sidewalks in the rain: how you approach, umbrella held low, but at the last minute you shift the handle diagonally and slip past. How this way, everyone stays dry.
Yesterday, he would never have noticed the street below as he began to wade into the water. He would not have paid attention to the neon of noodle shops reflected in bus windows, to the commercial of the slim woman singing in the shower, a bottle of Pert Plus in hand, projected onto that massive screen on the side of the Mitsukoshi Building. Yesterday, he would have kept his head down and pushed through the pool like everyone else.
But today, he stopped at the crest of the footbridge and leaned against the railing. He stood there for a long time, eyes closed, listening to the traffic clatter below. Rain slammed down, soaking him around the edges his umbrella, but he did not move. As he shivered, he realized he already missed this place, and he hadn’t even left. And then it occurred to him: he could take that footbridge in either direction. He had all his possessions in his backpack, all his money in his pocket, and it would be easy enough to turn around and make his way back to the train station. It would be easy enough to buy a ticket to another city in Taiwan, to ride the express train to the other side of the island, to find a new apartment, a new school to fudge his paperwork. Legality was, after all, a slippery concept here.
Jacob stood a moment longer in the rain and breathed in his city. And then he opened his eyes, turned around, and began to retrace his steps.