It was this hellish autumn midnight in October 2010. I was with some friends on a sleeper bus in China. We were bombing down a rainy highway, right into the eye of some kind of gale-force monsoon. When you’re on a highway the best direction to move is “forward.” But tell that to the driver. Motherfucker was an innovator and had this fascination with skidding left and right. He was a ruby-red little smokestack of a man with a witch cackle for a voice. Something askew in his head. He’d see a puddle and speed up like an F-16 was chasing us. This was going to be yet another Asian tour bus catastrophe. And that wasn’t even my biggest problem.
“We’re not going to stop,” my friend whispered.
“I know,” I said.
We were right in the middle of a harsh new reality. Three hours into the ride and we had to piss so, so badly. The problem with that was that the bus didn’t have a bathroom. We’d been drinking before we boarded, because of course we had. When you’re twenty-two you’re perpetually playing a game where if you stop moving, you start drinking.
We had also expected stops along the route but apparently the driver was having none of that. He was going to make the whole sojourn in one shot. A nine-hour overnight haul to the Tibetan border. Six hours to go and I’d already set a new bladder-stretching record. So at least I had that going on for me.
Nine hours, no bathroom, no stops. What do you do.
2010 was my first tour of duty in the Asian ESL trenches. We had the first week in October off for Chinese National Day, so I headed west with some friends to hike this place called Tiger Leaping Gorge. When you get up to the summit you can see some the lesser Himalayas in the distance.
The first leg of the trip was a twenty-four hour train ride out to Kunming. It’s in the southwest of China, the geographical equivalent of Phoenix. Just one of the hundred Chinese cities with a population north of one million. From Kunming it was an overnight bus trip out to the Gorge. We hit the bus terminal courtyard and bought some Tsingtaos. Circled the wagons and drank.
The deep chill of fall was here and gray dust caked a world that already gray to begin with. The courtyard was an endless thing. It could have doubled as a Soviet-style parade deck for dictators to show off lines of tanks. China. Toddlers in split-bottom pants squatted on the concrete slabs to go potty. Long-range loogies launched and exploded like ICBMs and motorcycles with dead pigs strapped to them buzzed by.
We cracked our second round of beers and bitched and jeered about our teaching jobs. Each time this memory unspools I want to intervene. Tell myself to stop drinking. It’s like watching the choppy footage of JFK in that car as he makes the final turn to ride past the Book Depository.
The sun melted away and the buzz rolled over us and then it was time to ride out. I crushed a third can and picked up my bag. The inside of the bus looked like the belly of an old warship. The little sleeping bunks were arranged like sailor berths. Three long rows of beds, stacked three high. Of course they were the size of matchboxes. Fit for Gimlis. I’m more of a Gandalf so I knew I was in for a rough night.
I dropped my bag on my little mattress and as the bus rolled out of the sprawl of Kunming I realized there wasn’t a bathroom.
That’s cool, I thought. I’ll just hit the bathroom at the next stop.
I had come to this continent to keep the party going. To be a young king, to sarcastically deride my new home. Such arrogance had to be paid for. Asia was going to twist and break me while God laughed and pissed a hurricane down from above.
Three hours into the ride, no stops yet. I didn’t speak any Mandarin yet but I’d mimed an emergency request to the man in the smoke cloud driving the bus and he’d already told me to fuck off.
The bus hurtled down unlit mountain passes but I was in too much pain to be scared. I wondered if bladders can explode like grenades. This was new territory for me. Every rut the bus hit multiplied the agony. When your bladder is that full you get existential and review your entire life. All the regrets and bad calls. Every second was a new eternity of spiritual darkness. I considered that maybe I was already dead and this was my punishment.
Somehow my friends managed to fall asleep. I couldn’t, so I just lay there and hated them with all my heart. Everyone else on board was slack and unconscious. Lolling loose like corpses being ferried into Hell.
Nine hours, no bathroom, no stops. What do you do. This was the greatest challenge of my life. Could I finesse my way out of this. Could I rise up and take responsibility. Become more than a drunk simpleton. What do you do, Fred. No bottle to pee in. So all other options were on the table. Pissing myself. Pissing on someone else’s bunk and blaming them. Cracking a window and whizzing out into the rain.
I started rooting around in my bag. Maybe I could get creative and McGuyver something. I felt like I was one of those geeks trying to get the Apollo 13 astronauts home.
Four hours into the ride I figured out what to do.
I dropped down from my bunk and tip-toed a few steps up the aisle. It was full of people. I had to silently navigate a human minefield. Chinese transport companies don’t just sell out all the seats, they sell the floor space too. Every square inch of a train or bus is monetized. Because in a country of 1.4 billion people there’s always someone who will pay to get to Beijing by dawn, even if it means straddling the tailpipe the whole way.
I found a few toeholds between the faces snoring on the dirt-crusted carpet and braced myself against the wall. In my left hand was a plastic bag I’d just emptied of all the food I’d bought for the hike. In my right hand was my towel. I lined the bag with my towel and unzipped.
And then it was over. Then came the relief, the ultimate payoff. Tendrils of pleasure reached up and gave my brain a warm squeeze as an explosion of dopamine rocked me. I shuddered and almost dropped the bag. There’s probably a fetish devoted to this feeling.
The towel was to muffle the noise of my urinary discharge. So the crinkling wouldn’t wake anyone up. Like a gun silencer. Smart move on my part, because I was unloading like a firehose. When I opened my eyes I saw the bag sinking lower. Distending and distorting as it filled up. It was hanging low like an elephant scrotum. Swinging and scraping over a sleeping Chinese man’s nostrils. I had to pivot a bit and stretch away as I finished my mission.
And then I was just a jackass doubled over in a dark bus aisle, holding a bag of my own urine like it was a goddamn Lombardi Trophy. This right here, this was brains and true grit. I grinned like an oaf for about five minutes. I was free. I felt so light I thought I was going to float up into the stratosphere.
The next problem was figuring out what to do with the bag. Five hours is a long time to stand there holding a giant squishy piss-balloon.
We stopped at a highway rest area twenty minutes later.