Written By Scarlet
Edited by Emerald Liu
She appeared around October, or maybe it was November, I don’t really remember. Whenever it was, I do recall the scent of cinnamon, spiced apples, and Autumn leaves. Currently as I write this, I’m even less sure of whether I recall spiced apples because I loved her in the iAutumn or if it was the scent of her perfume.
I have changed somewhat since she left, the way that everyone changes with the tides. Naturally, just as foamy waves crash in without warning, washing over feet and enveloping naked ankles, it recedes just as abruptly, washing away sand and sometimes leaving behind a little too. I can still recall the first moment she existed in my mind. Where before there was nothing, she bloomed silently and wordlessly into what was once an abyss, exploding fireworks within my soul, spreading warmth and colour through my veins.
Loving her was just one of those things; something shameful and dirty, a permanent opaque black ink stain on white sheets. It’s in the rolling up of thick sweater sleeves before beginning the long and most undesirable task of dish-washing before remembering the dainty carvings that lay below the knit fabric. And so you push them back down to your wrists, the ribbed hems now soaked in dirty dishwater.
A few years back I sat in an examination room, sneakers swinging rather violently against my chair in an attempt to hide the nervous trembling in my knees and ankles.
“Bloodwork,” she’d told me. My mother sat across from me in a rather uncomfortable position, her lips and brow fixated in a seemingly permanent state of concern. Does she know? My grown out nails dug sharply into exposed wrists. No, I assured myself, how could she? I was asked to remove my sweater, and so I complied, shedding the protection of the red pilling sleeves, baring the remnants of sliced skin. As the nurse began examining my left arm in search of a vein I allowed my eyes to wander, in avoidance of my mother’s gaze. I eventually settled on a painting that hung rather crookedly on a blue wall. It was a forest scene, in which there was a playground inhabited by a family of bears. The nurse began tying a rubber elastic just above my elbow, apologizing profusely for the discomfort she was causing me. Judging by her wandering eyes along the carefully drawn lines that adorned my canvas, it was less of an apology for sticking the needle in the wrong spot on my arm and more in guilt that she could not interpret my art work as well as I could.
I was standing above my kitchen sink, gazing absentmindedly through a window, rinsing out an almost empty jar of tomato sauce when I first saw her. She sat daintily, propped on the edge of the building across from mine. Her neon green fishnet stockings peeked out from under a black pleated, mini-skirt; her bright lace-up combat boots swinging childishly against the rooftop. As my gaze moved slowly from her boots upwards towards her incomparably lovely visage, our eyes met. She waved suddenly with fervor and laughed playfully, the way wind-chimes might sound in the breeze as she threw her head back with a smile. Butterflies swarmed in my chest, beating their wings against the caverns of my ribs. The jar slipping carelessly from my hands, the glass shattered against the walls of the stainless steel sink.
The piercing crash of broken glass shocked me back into reality. How annoying, I thought, I’ll have to rinse off these dishes again. Noticing a small gash on my thumb, I carefully
removed a chunk of glass before pressing the throbbing wound against the dish towel. “Does she live around here?” I thought. I couldn’t recall ever seeing her around before. Certainly if I had ever passed by her nearly glowing tights and gaudy, red boots on a neighborhood sidewalk, I would have recognized her at once.
We had never met before, but there was something warm and familiar about her. Something within me was stirred by the presence and closeness of that same something within her. These dormant beings that lay sleeping within us suddenly called out to each other, as if to say, “It is me, I am here! Don’t you remember? It is me from yesterday, from a distant frame of time in your memory.”
Several days later, my kitchen mat still tinged with the red of what could only be splotches of spilled tomato sauce, there was a knock at my door. I looked through the peephole, straining my neck somewhat in my short stature. It was her. My head was fuzzy, and I could’ve
sworn the room was spinning. Another knock. I unlocked the door hesitantly, and there she stood, with a smile that encompassed her entire being, holding a white paper bag with grease stains. I just stood there, gaping, too shocked to welcome her in. “I think I live in the apartment across from you!” she smiled again. And still, I said nothing. “I watch you sometimes,” she paused, “Not that I’m staring, our windows just face each other. I’ve never seen you cooking, so I thought I’d bring you something to eat. You seem so busy with work lately, but you have to look after your health!”
Still incapable of words, I gestured clumsily for her to come in. She stepped over the threshold eagerly, stopping with care to read the framed clippings on my walls. “You write poetry?” she asked.
I felt embarrassed, attempting to block her range of eye-sight with my body. She noticed my discomfort and did not push further. “Here,” she said instead, holding out the greasy paper bag, “Made them myself.”
I looked inside. Several small golden-brown spheres, no larger than doughnut-holes, lined the bottom of the bag, covered in sifted powdered sugar. “Zeppoles?” I took a tentative bite. “Close. Nigerian Puff-Puff. Like Zeppoles, but better.” They were soft, a little sweet, and probably too oily, but they were good, I decided. I attempted a grateful smile and thanked her for the gesture. She continued meandering around my apartment, her fingers occasionally ghosting over stacks of books and file folders. After swiping her hand over a particularly dusty, Learning in the World: Mandarin Second Edition, textbook, I finally spoke. “Sorry about the mess by the way. I’d say it isn’t usually like this but…”
“It’s okay,” she interrupted, “it looks like you haven’t picked this up in a while.” She began flipping through the pages, some still stuck together, the smell of new cardstock filling the room. “Is this for school?”
“I was trying to learn for my mom, thought it would help us understand each other better.” “Did it work?”
Every following week, she came back with something new in a paper bag. “I’m practicing, just broadening my culinary horizons,” she explained, but I liked to think she made them with me in mind. She always wanted my opinion, and maybe I wasn’t the best person to ask because, to me, everything she brought tasted good. Oftentimes it was jiaozi with various fillings, lopsided and leaking, sometimes a little soggy. She’d stay to keep me company while I worked, oftentimes until the early hours of the morning talking about both everything and
nothing at all. She was deceiving, a seeming oversharer, but never actually managing to reveal herself. Even now, I’m not sure I really knew her at all.
I took her up to the roof of my apartment complex once; that’s where I learned she was an avid chainsmoker. She carefully peeled back the plastic wrapping on a box of Malboros, offering me one. I declined, watching her light one with pursed lips, the gentle click of the lighter filling the 4 a.m. silence. I was surprised, I must admit, her scent was sickeningly sweet and bright juxtaposed by the dark, smoky scent of cigarettes and breath of blackened lungs. After a particularly long drag, she sighed softly. “There are people that hate us for what we are. They aren’t brave enough to live their lives honestly, and they can’t stand that we dare to.”
I wonder now who she was trying to convince. She always seemed free, much braver than me. But this time she was a vulnerable open wound. I couldn’t bring myself to touch her, afraid she might shatter in a thousand pieces. The cigarette that once rested firmly against her forefinger lay neglected on the concrete, her hands shaking.
It made me think of my mother, when I could trust her with my heart and bring to her its torn fragments to piece back together on a Singer sewing machine. It wasn’t always this way. I can still remember the days when she was mine, and I was hers. That night she was slicing vegetables for pan-fried noodles, tossing minced garlic into a freshly oiled wok. “When am I getting grandchildren?” she asked. She was facing away from me, but I could hear the smile in her voice. It was affectionate and teasing, but I could feel the dull ache in my chest strengthening.
“I don’t know Ma, we’ll have to see if I marry first.”
She shoved a carrot chunk into my mouth, the cold metal of the chopsticks only slightly easing the stinging burning sensation of steaming carrot fresh from the pan. I was sure my
tongue would be numb for the next few days. “There’s someone in the church I want you to meet,” she spoke again, “About your age, and almost done with college. I hear his father owns a financial firm. He’s already on his way to being set for life.”
“I don’t want to, Mama, I’m busy with school anyway,” I diverted my eyes towards a crawling ant slowly edging towards a plate on the dining room table.
“You never come home as it is,” I heard her tone begin to shift, a dark, brooding storm beginning to form, “This is the least you can do.”
“Mama, I’m busy,” I say again, “I’m not ready to bother with a relationship right now. I can’t let my grades slip.” It’s a cheap excuse, a diversion away from the elephant making its way into the room, and we both know it.
“You should be careful,” she says, “It’s those friends of yours at school. So worldly.” The fork I was holding clattered clumsily onto the white ceramic plate below. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t forget where you come from. You know who you are, don’t allow them to influence your mind.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my friends.”
“You have gay friends, don’t think I don’t know.”
“That doesn’t mean anything Ma, it’s their choice how they want to live.” “It’s disgusting.”
“It’s unnatural,” she said calmly, facial expression unmoving, “Why so quick to defend them? I bet you do dirty, sinful things with girls too.”
By now I’m biting my tongue so hard it’s beginning to bleed. “So what if I do!” I cry, “Am I not your daughter then?”
“I knew this would happen. I knew I would lose you to them. What would your grandmother think? How do I tell your father?”
“STOP IT!” I scream, “Why are you being this way?!”
“In middle school when you cut your hair and dressed like a boy I knew you’d turn out this way. It’s okay, we can get you help,” she’s picking at dirt beneath her nails now, “You aren’t really like this deep down. You never have original thoughts, you learned these behaviors somewhere.”
Wiping away snot and tears with the back of my sleeve, I grabbed my coat from where it lay discarded on the back of a chair, making my way to the door. “I have to go now Mama. I love you.”
She sighs. “You’ll regret it you know. Soon you’ll come crawling back. You always have.” She knew. It felt like time had been stolen from me. So much time spent in an effort to please a person unwilling to see. To spend a lifetime in pursuit of satisfying the vicarious pleasures of another, is truly a waste. “Don’t come back until you’re ready to do as I say,” I hear her footsteps retreating into her room and I swing the door closed with a bang.
I’ve found it takes a while to unlearn things, to believe you deserve to exist in your own skin when you’ve been told you weren’t someone meant to live. Even now I sometimes hear the whispers of a ghost in my hair, my sheets, and my clothes, seeping beneath skin and permeating
my mind. Suffice to say, I haven’t been back home to visit in awhile. I hear my mother’s words in an unrelenting mantra too; they can be difficult to distinguish from my own. I heard sobbing, my memories interrupted. “I’ve corrupted you.” Her attempt at a whisper came out as a strangled noise. I couldn’t understand what she meant then, but these days when I think of it, I know I tainted her too.
“Not at all,” I thought to answer, but the words didn’t manage to leave my lips. What she needed to hear the most, I could not find the courage to say, and for that, I cannot be forgiven. “It’s wrong,” she chanted over and over. We were only friends if even that, but perhaps there was something unsaid between us, something we both knew better than to speak of. Her bony fingers reached upwards to clutch at the rosary that hung along her neck. I hadn’t noticed it before. It seemed misplaced on her body. It was something unwelcome that didn’t belong on a girl whose thick black eyeliner lay streaming in dark streaks down pale and hollowed cheeks. I didn’t think she was one to be religious, then again she didn’t seem the type to smoke either. “Do I make you uncomfortable?” I say finally.
“Yes,” she says, but when her eyes meet mine I know it isn’t true. She left and did not come back the next day, nor the day after.
It would be several weeks of not seeing her before it dawned on me that she would not be visiting me again. Perhaps she got too busy at school, or maybe she moved away. Now, from time to time, I ponder what has become of her. It wasn’t a sorrowful parting, not in the slightest. Memories of her feel like Puff-Puff gone stale. Not too bad to eat at first, but leave your jaw sore
and a bland taste on your tongue. It’s the remembrance of when they were fresh and steaming, aerated and lightly sweetened that make them taste good even after they’ve become hardened and soggy inside.
I see her everywhere, and when I see a woman whose arm is clutched onto the man beside them, sometimes I think it’s her. I bet that’s where she is now, and the thought is bitter and distasteful, but I hope she’s happy. I wish I had been brave enough to say something more on the roof of my apartment. Something absurd, and something courageous. She’s one of those people I think I’ll see again, even if it isn’t in this life. I get the notion we’ve met before. I know I’ll find her again.
These days, I find myself wondering about the dreamers with guitars strapped to their backs, the ones who stand alone on train platforms with only the night sky to accompany them. I always hope they make it, but I must remind myself that these are only fleeting moments. I will never know these dreamers, and they will never be a constant in my life, nor will I be a constant in their’s. But in the snapshot in time when they consume my universe entirely, they leave behind a trace of themselves, burned in my memory, that I may treasure them perpetually. She was a bit like that. And so when she left, I did not feel empty.