Memory comes like a rope let down from heaven, to draw one out of the abyss of unbeing.
– Marcel Proust
Not long ago I was sitting at a bistro in an upscale mall on the South China Coast where I had coffee with a former lover.
Ours wasn’t a great romance, no great chemistry or anything like that. Yet, seven years ago as a newly arrived expat with no knowledge of the language and a seemingly infinite learning curve ahead, our meetings and shopping excursions and meals prepared together broke my embryonic isolation. “Don’t you ever get lonely?” he asked one evening as we relaxed on my darkened balcony. We could barely make out each others’ silhouette, conversing in the deep evening, yet he could sense my fumbling alienation in a new culture.
Next spring arrived and he dusted off his dream of studying abroad. I helped polish his application to a design school in Europe, which accepted him that summer. Our last morning was celebrated at a newly opened five-star hotel (the city’s first) over a farewell Sunday brunch. Afterward as the doorman hailed separate taxis for us, a realization hit my gut that the first significant chapter of my life in a new land was ending. I started to choke as we said goodbye; the taxi ride home was a blur.
Returning to an empty apartment with a long and vacant day ahead, I faced my sofa where we once watched a DVD of Billy Wilder’s LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, since like many Chinese he had an embracing love of Audrey Hepburn. (For many Chinese, three Hollywood stars are unquestioningly cherished: Audrey Hepburn, Esther Williams and Shirley Temple.)
Wanting to float on that flash of memory, the two of us snuggling on a couch with a movie, I opened a recent purchase of another Hepburn movie, ROMAN HOLIDAY, which I hadn’t seen since I was a small kid, which I thought was a snooze and quickly forgot.
He and I had no expectations, no thoughts of the long haul And we parted as friends, good friends. So my sadness and tears had nothing to do with the blow of dreams disappearing or the sting of a dying romance. I was ending a brief reprieve from cultural barriers and closing a single, grateful period of heartfelt satisfaction. Little did I know how much of that past year’s emotional arc would be relived by me — compacted and polished — in the film I was about to watch.
For Hepburn’s runaway princess who got to live for a few days among the common folk, introduced to everyday thrills and pleasures, was like my admittance into a genuine and fully experienced life in a new land, dissolving my previous role as an enlightened — yet perpetual — tourist.
As I got into ROMAN HOLIDAY, having worked in movies, I responded initially to craftsmanship and cultural rhizomes: the seamless mixing of European and Hollywood talent and locations, wondering which lines were written by Blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, envying Gregory Peck’s flawlessly functional Edith Head threads. Yet as the film began to point to the inevitability of Peck and Hepburn’s parting, returning to their individual lives and duties and separate futures, the unavoidably necessary withering of the lovers’ tendril-like affections gave me a rare opportunity to identify and openly weep over a movie. And I went with it — big time.
Eventually I developed a rich personal life in China — one that continues to bring me back for protracted stays. Yet on this last trip, my first friend and I happened to be in town at the same time. (He continues to live in Europe.) We passed a couple of hours in the simple joy of a connection that was sweet to sample again.
A tropical storm near Taiwan brought rain by the time I finished my cup. Walking back by myself on a pedestrian overpass, I saw a middle-aged woman whose hard existence of manual labor had chiseled deep grooves of a perpetual scowl. She shielded herself from the blowing rain with an umbrella decorated with images of Audrey Hepburn.
That night, a new Chinese friend and I walked along the river, looking across the waters at a solid bank of exclusive and artistically-lit condo buildings on a stretch of land which, years ago on that ROMAN HOLIDAY Sunday afternoon, had been earthen paths trod by water buffalo. My friend said he had a gift for me since I liked black-and-white movies. I opened the package and inside was a copy of ROMAN HOLIDAY.
I didn’t feel like eating much dinner that night. Instead I poured a shot of Johnny Walker and listened to an NPR podcast, relaxing in bed. My last thoughts in that dematerializing haze of drifting off were wondering if Audrey would appear in my dreams, softly running toward me as one who had recognized a familiar face in a crowd, while I also felt the whiskey warming my chest. Or perhaps it wasn’t whiskey at all that gave me comforting heat, but the gifts of remembrance and the receiving of wisdom.