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She remembers her ex-husband once saying that no matter where you are on Earth — could be the middle of the Sahara Desert or on some forgotten adventurer’s trail through the rainforests of South America — you can always count on seeing a woman out running all by herself. Can’t you just picture her out there in her leggings and tank top with her earbuds firmly in place and her ponytail undulating rhythmically with each step she takes? …


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He ingests small doses of medicinal poison every six months to kill the parasitic worms lodged in his intestines. He feels a painful jolt each time at the precise moment of holocaust when the tiny interlopers begin to thrash miserably in his guts in their final death throes. It doubles him over or twists him momentarily within his sweaty bedsheets. Once, he could have sworn he felt an attempt at escape in there as the parasites fled through his digestive tract in a futile attempt at survival.

Even his daily bowel movements, firm in consistency and wristwatch-reliable in his home country, alternate here between miry sludge and broken, jagged flotsam and arrive irregularly and unannounced. In his mind, he populates actuarial tables, calculates the odds that the death seed has already sown itself inside his colon. He imagines worst-case scenarios, protracted suffering. But then he visits home for a few weeks and his system is reset to its defaults, his stool familiar and unremarkable, the cycle reset to commence once more. …


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It was when the river disappeared that we knew once and for all we’d lost. I remember how we all just stood there unbelieving with our bottles of chilled prosecco and our fluted glass stemware, our foldable camping chairs and plastic coolers of ice and cans of beer, gaping at a muddy trench freshly scraped into the earth that had once been flowing water and our refuge from everyday urban malaise. Even the riverbank, on which we’d sat on so many Saturday afternoons getting pleasantly drunk in the open air and managing to find some temporary affection for this city we’d come to inhabit only by necessity, was now mostly obliterated, transformed into a craggy, irregular precipice overlooking the morass. …


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In August 2009, I flew from New York to Cairo for the first time. I was headed east, and I traced the progress of my flight on my seatback monitor, following that little airplane icon across the Atlantic, through France and the lower part of Italy, just shy of the west coast of Greece, and over the Mediterranean to my endpoint in North Africa. During my two years in Egypt, I took the westbound flight home and then back east to Cairo a total of four times.

In January 2011, as Cairo descended into chaos in the wake of the Egyptian revolution, I flew further east to Vietnam to hide out at a friend’s place and secure a job for the following school year. Again, I watched on my in-flight monitor as the airplane icon moved eastward over Saudi Arabia and the southern edges of Iran and Pakistan before crossing the center of India and the Bay of Bengal and landing first in Bangkok and then, after a four-hour layover, in Ho Chi Minh City. A few weeks later, I flew west, back to a now liberated Cairo in the process of stabilizing after overthrowing its autocratic leader. …


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The black sedan stops outside the gate of a large pastel-colored high rise, and Henry Carson’s phone buzzes in sync with a chiming sound from the front seat. Henry presses his right thumb to his phone and hears a receipt printing from a small electronic device mounted on the dashboard next to the driver. He then exits the car from its rear curbside door and fishes a small plastic fob from his front pocket, which he waves before an electronic sensor to buzz himself into the complex. He walks through a verdant central courtyard where flat monitors sprout up among the foliage advertising healthcare and investment solutions. A cybernetic ecology. When he reaches his building, he waves the fob again to enter the lobby and then once more in the elevator to access floor 17. …


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We hired a new sales guy this month here at the Beijing office. Nice guy, a Kiwi, by the name of Michael Hitchins. Tom, the other lead developer, and I have taken to calling him INXS Frontman Michael Hutchence or, on one darkly funny occasion, The Late INXS Frontman Michael Hutchence, after the poor guy got held up for 45 minutes in the congested aftermath of a car accident on the Airport Expressway on his way to the office.

Barring that single instance of comic serendipity, it’s always all four words Tom and I use: INXS Frontman Michael Hutchence. I think we like that it’s a nickname that defies the conventions of nicknaming. It’s not a shortening of the man’s name a la Mike or Hitch designed to signal camaraderie or save time. It’s actually quite a mouthful, yet we say it every time. “INXS Frontman Michael Hutchence is with prospective clients at Sanlitun Soho today,” we might say, or “Give Phillips’s old account to INXS Frontman Michael Hutchence.” …


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The first time I returned, it was like I had never gone. It had been roughly a year at that point, a not-insignificant amount of time, but it might as well have been only a week or two. I still got all the inside jokes and cultural allusions peppering conversations. I still knew what mattered and what had become passé or obsolete. I could confidently express opinions about the state of things or, conversely, feign ignorance or detachment without legitimately having no clue.

And when I went away again, I felt assured that everything would be more or less as I had left it. Familiar people would be having familiar conversations about familiar topics in familiar settings. I suppose there was some comfort in that, and I took comfort that returning would present no challenge as I traveled that distance far from everyone. …


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I’m seated at a small plastic table at a curbside pub on my third bottle of Saigon Export, and Belinda Carlisle’s 1987 smash hit “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” is blasting from the restaurant’s stereo system as my fellow backpackers and I drink and smoke shisha and pointedly ignore the vendors wandering along the street peddling cigarettes, sunglasses and stacks of poorly mimeographed Lonely Planet travel guides. I remark to my friend that this is not the first or even the second or third time I’ve heard this American pop culture relic in Southeast Asia. …


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It didn’t hurt that the streets were already soaked in blood. Severed limbs and entrails lined the shores of drying scarlet pools, and the blood-red trails of carcasses dragged up and down alleyways were still visible at night. Sidewalks, fences and light posts were sticky with gore. All washed in the blood of the lamb.

I cut the old man’s throat and let the life drain from him and blend with the viscera already littering the street. Then, grasping one of his legs and the collar of his blue denim work shirt, I pitched him into a pile of discarded fruit, table scraps and plastic water bottles where he splayed lifeless next to a bloody mass of indistinct animal hide. Then, I wiped the knife on my dark pant leg and exited the darkened alley without concern into an Egyptian teahouse alive with revelers smoking shisha and playing backgammon. The men smiled amiably as I passed, some saying hello in English. …


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It wasn’t actually all that long before Mark had started screwing around with local girls. Less than a year, she guessed. At least as far as she knew. She’d been warned about it ahead of time, of course. That living in Southeast Asia would wreck her marriage. That Western men were incapable of resisting all that flirtation and adoration. She guessed she shouldn’t have been surprised Mark had succumbed. And she guessed when she really thought about it, she wasn’t.

By this point, there was so much tension between the two of them anyway. There was mutual disdain that framed all their interactions like some historical atrocity never publicly reconciled. Their conversations were perfunctory, and they each rolled their eyes at much of what the other said. Beth figured her husband sleeping with Vietnamese bar girls was probably just another symptom of a more severe degenerative condition. …

About

Jason Simon

International teacher and short story writer. Currently, Head of HS English at Western Academy of Beijing.

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