My father had a huge grin on his face when he came back into the lobby. Ruby’s father was scowling.
“That’s all settled,” my father said. “We’re free to continue our vacation as planned. We just have to bring along a state-appointed guide. She’ll be here in a few minutes to bring us to the fountain show.”
Ruby ran to her father and gave him an enormous hug, and his face softened almost imperceptibly.
The state-appointed guide was named Ms. Chen, and she didn’t show up for another half hour. My grandmother had time to win all of our Chinese pocket change by creaming us at poker. When Ms. Chen showed up, she told us to hurry up because we were late for the fountain show. She was a very small middle-aged woman, but I had the impression that she could take me in a fight. Everyone else must have had the same impression because we all piled into her van without pointing out that she was the one we’d been waiting on.
We arrived at this large communal courtyard with fountains and statues in the center. A lot of couples were walking around in matching outfits. We stopped and got dinner at a noodle place before the fountain show.
“Aren’t we running late?” my mother asked.
“The fountain show starts in an hour and a half,” Ms. Chen said. “We are running late for dinner before the fountain show.”
But even when we’d finished dinner, we still had half an hour to walk around and look at the statues. Ms. Chen told us about the statues as we walked. Some were of historical figures, and some were characters from Chinese novels. Margo kept giving me her phone so she could climb up next to the statues and mimic their poses for pictures to post on Instagram.
While we were all walking around, I remembered to ask her. “You said you were on Facebook? …How does that work? China doesn’t have Facebook.”
“Lauren’s been managing my Facebook page,” Margo said. “I send her pictures and captions through WeChat and she posts them for me.”
“It’s like this Chinese messaging service,” Margo explained. “Jeez, how have you been talking to your friends?”
I wasn’t going to tell her that I hadn’t been, except for the occasional email, so instead I said, “Hey, check out those fountains.” There were a lot of fountains, but they weren’t doing anything particularly interesting. There were a lot of people gathered around the edge of the fountains, though, like they were waiting for something to happen.
“The fountain show begins in fifteen minutes,” Ms. Chen said. “Please find a place to sit.”
Margo, my father, and I all went to stand close to the fountains. Everyone else stood in the back where it wasn’t so crowded. While we waited for the show to start, Margo and I started keeping track of who could find the most couples in matching outfits.
“There’s a rubber duck-themed one over there,” I said, pointing to a couple on the other side of the fountains.
“They’re both wearing matching shades of red. I don’t know if that counts,” Margo said.
“They look like they did it on purpose. I’ll give you half a point. That’s smarter, to just buy matching colors, because what do you do when you break up if your entire closet is halves of matching outfits?”
“Maybe when you start going out with someone you compare the matching outfits you have,” Margo suggested. “Like, ‘hey, I have the rubber duck one and the heart one. Do you have either of those?’”
“Oh shhh, shhh, it’s starting,” my father said. “Alex, be my tripod for a second,” he said, standing behind me and balancing his camera on my head.
The music was something classical and Chinese-sounding that I didn’t recognize. A lot of things that I didn’t think were fountains turned out to actually be fountains, and they were doing things I had never seen a fountain do before. Jets of golden water leaped from fountain to fountain, chasing each other. Then the gold turned to a deep and striking blue, and then faded into purple. A few of the younger children were running in between the jets of water.
“Dad. Alex,” Margo whispered, nudging us.
“What is it?” my father whispered, annoyed.
“The guys in the black suits, the ones from earlier. Isn’t that them?”
My father snatched his camera from my head and started to run. He didn’t even look back to see if we were following. (We weren’t.) He headed away from the suits, almost barreling directly into another set of dark-suited men. For a moment he was frozen, looking from one set of men to the other. Then he ran straight into the fountains, bolting between two tall and powerful sprays.
I watched for a moment, stunned, as the men in dark suits mobilized, leaping into the fountains after my father. Margo reflexively continued to take pictures. A jet of water leaped from a fountain directly into my father’s face. I grabbed Margo’s hand and pulled her over to my mother and Ms. Chen.
“Ms. Chen, who are the men in dark suits?” I asked.
“Yeah, I thought we were out of trouble,” Margo said. “Is this a set-up?”
“Why did your father jump in the fountain?” Ms. Chen snapped. “Now all of these men think they can do it.” She was looking at the men in suits, who were chasing after my father. “They are too old to play games.”
My father had left the fountains and was racing back towards the walkway decorated in statues, but he was drenched in water and he slipped on the concrete. He fell to the ground and curled up in a ball. The men in the dark suits surrounded him. A few people drifted over from the fountain show to the cluster of suits. I couldn’t tell whether they were concerned or hoping for entertainment.
“This is inappropriate,” Ms Chen snapped, and stormed off towards the crowd. “Why are they playing games? They are not children!” We all followed her over to the cluster of people, where she pushed her way to the center. We could hear her yelling in Mandarin. Some of the men in suits began to back away. When one of them shifted, I got a clear view of Ms. Chen shaking her fist at one of the men in suits, shouting into his face, and pointing at my father, who was sitting on the ground. He looked confused, but not as confused as the men in suits.
“I really wish I could tell what she was saying,” Margo whispered to me.
Ms. Chen grabbed my father’s hand and lugged him to a standing position. “And you!” she snapped in English. “You should be ashamed as well! Playing in the fountains like a child. You are not watching the fountains anymore. I am taking you back to the hotel.” She began to pull my father towards the car. One of the men in suits made a noise of protest and grabbed my father’s other arm. Ms. Chen shouted something at him, and he shouted back. Then she punched him in the face.
The man in the suit fell to the ground, clutching his face. Ms. Chen shouted at him for a while longer, then she resumed pulling my father towards the car. We all followed, afraid to make a sound. She was muttering mostly in Chinese, but I caught the occasional English phrase. “These morons make it hard for me to do my job. Behaving like children!”
Suddenly she turned to Jim, who jumped backwards. “You never threaten a woman who is trying to do her job. You never do that. Never, ever do that. Okay?”
“Okay,” Jim squeaked.
“I’ve found my new favorite person ever,” I whispered to Margo.