I spend the last circling bit of my thirties on the seventeen-hour ride to Taiwan. The plane nips at the heels of a typhoon, and the ride is bumpy, labored in total darkness as we hug the curve of the rotating planet. Its just getting on dawn when we arrive; we are transported twelve hours ahead in time, so I magically turn 40 when we land.
Sarah Silverman once said that getting old is a horror movie in slow-motion—I had been eyeballing this birthday like an expiration date, and this trip was the best present I could think to give myself, even though Taiwan is a nation built around adorable youth. There is a cult of cute here. Even the grannies wear Hello Kitty and bedazzled sneakers.
The streets of Taipei are chewy with humidity, and the women look like beekeepers or bandits in their long sleeves, gloves, sombreros, surgical masks, trying to protect their skin from the sun. I hang out under an umbrella, stomach cramping from the heat, and find myself not giving a shit that I am going into my fourth decade. I learn to say you are nice and it is delicious and you are cute in Mandarin.
On the South Sea of Taiwan, I visit a Taiwanese friend and her family, and we take a boat tour to a smaller island. The water is clear and green and full of sea turtles. On the boat, a boy and his father sidle up to me to ask if they can get their pictures taken with me, my whiteness a novelty. The father is a little boisterous, the kind of guy who is drunk before he starts drinking, and I take an instant liking to him. His son is shy, peeping at me from under a K-pop fringe of lightened hair. Every time I look, he is looking at me.
“My son,” the boisterous man says. The kid is twenty; his English name is Gary. I’d love to understand the formula by which these English names are derived.
We go to the beach. The Taiwanese avoid the sun like vampires—there is a beautiful woman with alabaster skin wearing a full wetsuit and a wide-brimmed hat, holding an umbrella over her head, sitting under the canopy. Gary wears a Speedo bathing suit, and sits in the shade. His eyes are deerlike, and I triangulate on him like a predator.
The boys here all beautiful and shy. I take a jet ski ride with a man with gorgeously tanned skin that feels unbearably buttery under my hands as I wrap my arms around his waist to keep from falling off. I want to bite him. He takes me out extra far—special treatment, my friend says, because I am American. I want him to mount me right on that jet ski.
There is a game they play here, calling out fan-toi and then tipping you into the water while the Taiwanese kids on shore all cheer. The jet ski operator turns the jet ski until my elbow is dragging along the surf, but he can not tip me off. My thighs are clamped so tightly around him that I can not be fan-toied.
On the ferry ride back, I leave my friend below and climb the ladder to the upper deck, where Gary is staring at the wake and listening to his iPod. I smile at him and pluck one of the earbuds from the shell of his ear, placing it in my own. K-pop.
“Can I hug you?” he asks. Like me, it seems he has learned a few foreign phrases, to be pressed into service at moments like this. I nod, and then this beautiful boy is kissing me. His mouth tastes like scallions. We watch the sunset, disembark, and I watch him walk away with his parents, looking back at me over his shoulder.