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March 28, 2023

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Ultramarine depths, and adrift

On my body is a spot of unspeakable emptiness. It’s on my forehead, secluded and in the gentle shape of a mother’s kiss. There, I feel the world more closely — December’s nip, July’s burn, April’s low and humid hang. A pat, a flick. A craved touch.

October in my hometown is undecided, tepid one day and freezing the next. Today is freezing. Where I stand, the metal gate is close enough to touch. I hear the kindergarteners laugh and jeer in the distance, the wind sift through handmade chimes on young trees. I start pacing the perimeter of the campus, peek through to the inside every few steps, at years and lifetimes I can’t remember anymore.

When I was in school and living under my parents’ roof, most things went untold. I came home hours past the end of the school day without notice. Dad got off work, angry at some unnamed idiot — and it was a tense, precarious anger that you had to tiptoe around — his temper unexplained.

Midnight at the dining table, when I slept with my face buried in my elbow over a spread of worksheets, breath uneven and graphite staining my cheek, Mom prodded me awake and poured me green tea. I never saw her open then close her mouth, exhale then press her lips together. She never saw me watch her pink-flanneled back disappear from view after she rubbed my shoulder and left for bed, her quiet “good night” swallowed in thick air.

We made a pastime out of clinging onto unspilled truths about school, about the family, about grandma, about the future, about our close and parallel lives, and painting them in sugar and white. Outside the school gate, I stop and gaze up at my breath as it rises in a pale plume. I realize that suffocation made me stiff to them. I encased my family in clear blue glass and looked from outside in.

When I was too young, my first love went unconfessed. One summer weekend, I remember fitting my entire body in the cradle of Mom’s lap. Dad sat at the opposite end of the couch, and my sister lay at his side, limbs just long enough to look awkward in her allotted space.

Dad was explaining the story behind my sister’s Chinese name. He was upbeat and seemed almost reanimated — I’d realize later that a few things in this world made life and people a little less annoying for Dad, although they were few in number. My sister’s name borrowed characters from a dynastic adage: xin kuang shen yi, a proverb from a story about a man on a high tower balcony. He found that, like the open breeze and the sprawling, shining fields below, being on the tower opened his heart and horizons.

Dad narrated excitedly, telling my sister that her name meant she was fated to live years of joy and peace, happily resilient to all suffering. My sister looked up at him and beamed wide, her eyes lit with delight. I listened along, my mouth hanging open and on the edge of asking where my name came from, whether I had a similar story.

I never asked. But almost.

Then, Mom planted a kiss on my hairline, and I felt her feeble smile.

Years later, I sat on the floor beside Grandma’s living room armchair, slumped against her armrest, just about unconscious. The TV droned in the background as Grandma threaded her fingers through my hair. (She could always get the tangles out without it hurting, I never knew how.) “I think you’re too tired,” she said tenderly. “Stupid child, you’re making life hard for yourself.”

I scooted closer and looked up into her milky gray eyes. My chest was sore, soft and bruised like an overripe fruit.

How long does it take for a childhood to be undone?


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