Chuck rubbed his lower back, his elbows shooting out behind him like wings. He wasn’t used to standing in line so long, but he had no other option. If he wanted his daughter to get into Hong Kong’s best montessori school, then he had to wait. He’d been in line for thirteen hours. The administration office would open in four more hours and then the line would begin to move. There were 37 people in front of him; if it took each person about 10 minutes to register, he would be at the front of the line in about ten hours. He had a pillow with him that he would lie down on occasionally, trying to nap, but he was no good at sleeping in public places. He needed his privacy, darkness and silence. The Chinese men he was in between stood stoically, occasionally glancing over at Chuck when he took a phone call, shouting English into the receiver.
The steel mill his company was commissioning was well underway, and while the mill was willing to share Chuck with the montessori school line, he still needed to be available by phone. On average, it took five years to get a steel mill up and running, but Chuck could get it done in two. The trick was 18-hour work days and no vacations. Yep, in two years Chuck and his family could move back to California, but in the meantime, his daughter needed an education.
After 2 more hours, his wife called.
“Hey, babe! How’s it going?” Elizabeth sounded relaxed.
“Oh it’s great. I don’t think anyone’s cut in line so I should be out of here in 8 hours tops.”
“8 hours, babe? That sounds awful. You want me to stand in line for you awhile?”
“No way. I got this.”
“Thanks honey, I love you. On your way home? Could you get some milk and some of those cookies I like?”
“Of course.” Chuck hung up the phone and looked over at the man standing behind him. “Just the wife checking in,” he said. The man made no indication that Chuck had spoken.
Chuck sat down on the cement, removed his shoes and sat Indian-style. He rubbed his toes, closed his eyes, and tried to clear his mind. He’d learned a lot about meditation since moving to Hong Kong and he hoped to master the art. He closed his eyes and imagined a bonsai tree; he felt that a bonsai was an appropriately Asian thing to meditate on, although he hadn’t seen any bonsai trees since moving to Hong Kong. Maybe bonsai trees were Japanese.
The two men next to him remained standing, their stiff, straight legs the antithesis of a bonsai tree, more like pine trees. They’d been standing the whole time; not once had Chuck seen one of them bend at the knees, let alone take a seat.
The line started to move. Chuck answered work emails for a few hours but then felt the need to interact with his environment. “You speak English?” Chuck asked the man in front of him in his atrocious Cantonese accent. The man just shook his head and turned his back on Chuck. “I’m learning Chinese, but still no so good,” Chuck said to the man’s back. Turning around, Chuck flashed a smile at the man behind him—no sign of life. Chuck pulled his phone back out and brushed up on his American celebrity gossip.
When Chuck was fourth in line, a tall Chinese man dressed in an Italian suit approached the line and swapped places with the man who’d been standing in front of Chuck. “Hey! Who are you?” Chuck said in English.
The man turned to him and said, “My name is Lin.”
“Oh! You speak English?”
“Are you registering your child at this school?”
“Who was that other man?”
“Someone I hired to stand on line.”
“On line? That’s British English. Americans say in line.”
The man shrugged and nodded to another man who had approached to take the place of the man who’d been standing in line behind Chuck.
“That guy too?” Chuck asked the man in the Italian suit. “He was paid to stand in line too?”
The man in the Italian suit nodded.
Chuck felt an uneasiness in his stomach, like when he’d eaten live octopus. The men who now flanked him were rich, successful men. Men like that don’t wait in line, they pay people to wait in line for them. Chuck was rich. Chuck was successful. And here he was, waiting in line like a loser. Once this epiphany had taken root, different versions of Chuck’s future branched out in front of him. In one direction, Chuck was the naive American who had stood on line for 14 hours when he could have paid an agency to stand on line for him. Looking further into that future, he saw his wife having an affair with the man in the Italian suit, then he was stuck in Hong Kong for five years due to delays at the mill. But in the other direction, he saw an ambitious, hardworking American who stood in line for his daughter; a man who didn’t need to rely on the strength of others. In this direction, he was back in America in one year. Chuck focused on this branch, chopping the others away.