I speak to a Chinese man on the phone sometimes. He’s trying to improve his English and I need the extra cash, so we talk. About China, his life, mine, the better paying job he is hoping for. We talk exclusively in paid shifts of conversation, usually 30 minutes or an hour.
If he makes an error, I am supposed to correct it. Usually, I do. Instead of “honestly,” he says “truth-speaking.” As in “Truth-speaking, I am not so happy.” He says it sometimes but I don’t correct him – I like it too much. When someone uses the word “honestly,” it feels like they are quickly switching to a more candid channel, but “truth-speaking” feels like it comes from down deeper, extracted from a personal mine of candor. By not correcting him, I am the steward of this phrase, of its delicate course in the world. Another time, when he is trying to ask about my availability to talk on the phone, he asks if I’m close.
“Can you talk? Are you nearby?”
I enjoy these slight errors in translation, as though he is saying that availability is a kind of proximity. Emotion, love, generosity just a matter of meters, miles, roads.
We talk for so many months that after a while, he’d like to meet. He invites me to dinner: traditional Chinese food, his wife will cook. The problem is that he lives far away. Even though I’d like to go, I tell him I’m sorry I won’t be able to make it, since I have no way of getting there.
It’s no problem; he’ll pick me up. He drives 30 minutes to my house, 30 minutes to his. He takes me into the basement, giddy to show me the rifle he seems to use exclusively for scaring the squirrels that terrorize his small estate. We have a pleasant time, we thank each other for various things, but these thank you’s feel so expected and so conventional that the meaning feels weaker than we intend. Then he drives me 30 minutes to my house and I feel it in the curves of the road, the tally of yellow dashes, the darkening night. He drives 30 minutes back.
Jason Schwartzman is the senior editor at True.Ink, a revival of a heritage adventure magazine. His writing has been published in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Narrative.ly, The Rumpus, Hobart, River Teeth, Atlas Obscura, Nowhere Magazine, and Human Parts, among other places. He’s on Twitter @jdschwartzman.