After dinner we were shown to our rooms. Margo and I were staying with Ruby in her room. My parents and Jim were staying in the guest room, which had a window unit. The entire apartment had air conditioning, but Ruby’s family hadn’t turned it on yet—according to Ruby, they didn’t turn it on until it was boiling outside.
Ruby had one fan pointing out of her window to suck hot air out of her room and one larger fan pointing at her bed. It was comfortable enough with only a light sheet on, but I felt weirdly exposed without a blanket, so I tossed and turned before falling asleep. With the window open, ambient light from the city gently bathed the room, and I entertained myself by watching the way it shifted and played against the walls as lights outside turned on and off. Margo fell directly into a deep sleep, the way she always does. I was awake for most of the night.
The next day I woke up exhausted. I drank the tea at breakfast faster than Ruby could boil it for me. It was strong and black and I was praying for a caffeine high.
“Today we will explore downtown and go up the Oriental Pearl Tower,” Ruby said.
“That sounds like a lot of walking,” I said. “I’m not sure grandmother can handle all that. She looks tired.”
“There’s an elevator,” Ruby said, looking confused. “It won’t be as much walking as you did in the Forbidden City.”
“Don’t listen to her,” Margo said. “She needs coffee.”
“I don’t think we have coffee,” Ruby said, concerned. “Would you like sausage? My parents bought sausage for you.”
“Um, sure,” I said. I didn’t see how sausage was going to help, but I was game to try it.
Ruby pan-fried some small sausages that came out of a can. They were alright, but they weren’t caffeinated. Margo and my grandmother had cereal without milk. Jim convinced my parents to try some of the sweet yellow cake that Ruby had bought for him. The package had a cartoon of a little dancing cake, and the words “Thousands of Cake!”
“I love this stuff,” Jim said, cramming an entire piece of cake into his mouth. “It’s so sweet and, like, pleasantly moist.”
“There’s one piece left,” Margo said, brandishing her fork. “I’ll duel you for it.”
“Can we just split it?” I asked. I was tired.
“Duel me for it and then we can split it.”
“No dueling with cutlery at the table,” my mother said, confiscating the last piece of cake. “Here, we’ll cut it into thirds.”
“Harsh!” Margo said. “You already had some!”
“I gave birth to you,” my mother said.
“You always say that, but I’ve never seen any evidence,” Margo grumbled.
After breakfast we piled back into the car. Ms. Chen was in the passenger’s seat. Another man was driving.
“How you sleep?” Ms. Chen asked us.
“Alex didn’t,” Margo said.
“Uuuuugh,” I said. I slumped against the car window.
“If you throw up, throw up out the window,” Ms Chen said. My head lurched. It took me a second to realize that Ms. Chen was rolling down the window I was leaning against. I slumped against Margo dejectedly.
“Don’t throw up in my car,” Ms. Chen said.
“I’m sleep-deprived, I’m not sick,” I said.
“The woman cannot handle her sleep-deprivation,” Margo said, stroking my hair.
“I’m going to die,” I said. Now that Ms. Chen had mentioned throwing up, I felt queasy.
“Don’t lose your Thousands of Cake,” Jim said.
“I am not going to throw up!”
“It’s best to just let it out if you have to,” my mother opined.
“Stop talking about it!” I said. The more they talked, the more carsick I felt.
Ms. Chen turned around in the passenger’s seat and before I could figure out what was happening she smeared something wet and oily across my forehead. “Good for the stomach,” she said, turning back around to speak to the driver in Mandarin.
I reached up to touch my forehead. The ointment smelled earthy and complicated, like incense at a Catholic mass.
Margo sniffed me. “You smell like expensive tea,” she said.
“Thanks,” I groaned.
“The driver will stop,” Ms. Chen announced. “You get out of the car, okay? Quickly, quickly!”
The driver stopped his car in the middle of the busy street. Cars began honking almost immediately. Traffic was zooming past on either side of us. “We’re getting out here?” Jim asked.
“Yes! You hurry!” Ms. Chen snapped, opening the door and climbing out. We all rushed out of the car and bolted towards the sidewalk, our heads ducked in embarrassment as the car horns continued to beep. Margo and my mother flanked my grandmother and rapidly frog-marched her towards the sidewalk. As we reached the sidewalk we turned back to see Ms. Chen still standing in the street and shaking her fist at the cars zooming past her, screaming in Mandarin.
Even though the Oriental Pearl Tower was still a few blocks away, we all noticed it immediately. It was one of the most striking skyscrapers we’d ever seen. It looked like a giant space needle accented by a few round bulges—I guess those were supposed to be the pearls.
There was a long line to get in, and we all had to stand outside in the sun. Ruby took out her parasol and used it to shade herself and my grandmother.
“You’re so good to me, Rosa,” my grandmother said, smiling at Ruby.
Margo looked enviously at the parasol. “I need to get one of those.”
We had to wait a long time, but finally, instead of standing in a long line outside, we were standing in a long line inside. The ultimate goal was to be herded into a little elevator that would rocket us to the top of the tower.
Margo had her phone out and was snapping pictures left and right. I couldn’t tell what of; there were some light-up walls and strings of red lanterns hanging from the ceiling, but other than that, nothing of interest. It looked like she was photographing the line. I entertained myself for a few minutes by speculating about possible reasons why, then eventually asked her.
“I’m taking creepy pictures of people and posting them to snapchat,” Margo explained.
I had to ponder that one for a moment. “Why?”
“Because if I post them to Snapchat they’ll be deleted after 24 hours, so it’s not really that creepy,” Margo said. “It’s not like I’m keeping them or anything.”
“No, but I mean why,” I began, but I didn’t see how there was anything to be gained by continuing the sentence. I watched Margo send out a picture of a cute three-year-old.
At last we made it into the elevator. I started to feel a little sick again on the way up, but when we got to the top I forgot all about that. The observation deck’s round walls were transparent, and you could see out over the city of Shanghai.
“Oh my goodness,” my grandmother said, awed. “Look at all of these orientals!”
The room was swarming with Chinese people, but we approached the giant window attempting to find a good view. Margo was frantically snapping pictures.
“What part of town did you say we were in again?” my grandmother asked as my mother led her towards the window. “One with a lot of immigrants?”
“We’re in China, mom,” my mother said, pointing out the window. “Look, see the city of Shanghai?”
“Oh, this place,” my grandmother scoffed. “When your father and I came here we took one look at the place and we turned around and drove straight home.”
One section of the tower had a glass floor. Margo wanted desperately to take a picture on it, but when she went near it my grandmother said “Don’t go on the glass, dear, you might fall in.” Margo waited a few minutes to try again, and she’d almost made it onto the glass when my grandmother said “Don’t go on the glass, dear!” in a tone of genuine panic.
My mother asked my grandmother if she’d like to buy some popcorn, and while her back was turned Margo and I took turns posing on the glass floor. My dad offered to take a picture of both of us, but he wouldn’t go on the glass floor himself. A girl and her brother came over to ask if they could take a picture with us, so we said sure and we all took group selfies. Meanwhile, Jim and Ruby had decided that the glass floor was a good place to practice their swing dancing, and they called my father over to record them dancing over Shanghai for posterity. The Chinese tourists thought that this was the best thing ever. They clapped and made amazed noises. When Jim pulled Ruby into a dip at the end, a lot of cameras went off. Jim held the pose for longer than was strictly necessary.
“We are going to be in so many vacation photos,” Margo said. “Nobody tell them we’re not famous.”