I left the hotel and went to find something to drink. And here I should tell you a bit about my character, something that needs to be explained before I go any further. It's only when you know something about me that you'll understand how I got into the scrape I got into, and why I got into it so quickly.
I'm easygoing by nature. As I'd traveled more than most people in my thirty years of life, I was even feeling somewhat cavalier about being lost in a big Asian city. I knew that statistically speaking Taipei was a much safer place than New York or Chicago, so I wasn't really in a rush to find out where I was. Anyway I had no reason to report to work that morning, and thought I might as well revel a bit in the fact of being lost. I took pleasure in the fact that I could be both at ease and completely lost in a foreign capital. Although tired out on that first day--the flight from New York was nearly twenty hours--the fact is that I was in a good mood.
Forty minutes later I was sitting in a little street-side café drinking an odd sort of sweet milk tea. I'd picked the cafe randomly, walked in, and sat down. When the waitress came up, I ordered by pointing at the drink sitting in front of another customer and gesturing to indicate that I wanted one too. But what had I ordered? I had no idea. At the bottom of the drink were little round chewy things that reminded me of something I'd eaten long ago. But I couldn't remember what it was, or where I'd eaten it. There was something strange about those chewy things, something about the memory they were prodding to the foreground of my mind. What was it? Taking another one into my mouth, I pressed it between my tongue and lower lip, trying to remember. Then, in the dim light of the cafe, it all came back to me. Combray...
I was at a birthday party in a large hall. There was a fat man in the corner playing an organ. A clown was going from table to table doing tricks. I didn't like the clown. Everyone wanted to avoid the clown because if he came to your table you might have to sing. There were many birthday parties happening at once in the large hall. It was a special restaurant for birthday parties, a kind of birthday parlor. The round chewy things were at the bottom of a bowl in front of me; they were floating in a kind of watery syrup which had been poured around a scoop of violet ice cream. They were mixed in with the ice cream and syrup.
That was it. I remembered.
But was that my birthday there with that nasty clown, or was it someone else's? I thought it wasn't mine. No, I knew it couldn't be my birthday party. But whose was it? I remembered I didn't like the person, whoever he was. No, I never liked that Birthday Boy.
Or was it my birthday after all? It's possible I was just afraid of the clown, and this accounted for the negative feeling of the memory. I couldn't be sure.
Here, in short, is the sort of thick nonsense that was going through my head that day because of the strange chewy things at the bottom of my tea drink, and probably also because of the long flight I'd just completed. My brain had started to swim, as brains will often do after a transoceanic flight.
I remember then using my spoon to fish two more of the chewy things out of my drink. They were round, partially translucent. They looked like frog eggs. I started to imagine a customer complaining because the frog eggs in his drink had started to hatch. Then another customer: her eggs were hatching too. Here and there round the cafe the uproar commenced, one customer at a time, people holding glasses up to the light, watching the tails of tadpoles begin to twitch. I imagined a man slamming his fist down on the bar: "Your product is not fresh here, Monsieur! From now on we will go elsewhere for our frog tea!"
I was tired, mouthing the words to myself: We will go elsewhere for our frog tea! We will go elsewhere...
It was just then I noticed a small Chinese boy watching me nervously. He was maybe three years old, with his mother at a table nearby, the mother talking animatedly with another woman. The boy seemed to be afraid of me, but couldn't stop looking: his curiosity was too much for him. I remember thinking that probably he’d never seen a foreign man up close. In any case he had four of his fingers stuck in his mouth for security, and his brow was knit in confusion and fear. It was an expression defined by tension: rapt curiosity struggling against an obvious desire to flee the strange monster before him. His other hand meanwhile, the one not stuck in his mouth, had reached up behind him and wound itself in his mother's skirt. Apparently he'd keep staring at the strange animal as long as his hand could assure him, by clinging to the skirt, that his mother was still there.
I smiled at the boy and began to lean slowly forward, reaching out with the spoon to offer him the two frog eggs. Instantly, with a loud whimper of terror, he leapt round to the other side of his mother and began wailing raucously, grabbing the attention of the few other people in the cafe. The mother turned and looked questioningly at me as I sat there holding out the spoon. The other woman also turned and looked at me with a mild frown. But the man behind the counter, the man mixing the frog eggs with the cold, creamy liquid, at least he began to laugh aloud.
I got up from my seat and went to the man behind the counter. I handed him one of the big blue bills with Chiang Kai-Shek's smiling face on it. I got my change, a lot of smaller red bills, and left the cafe.
On to Chapter 4