The Symbolism behind Driving into an Underpass on the Garden State Parkway

One time, while driving home from a Tuesday grocery trip at the Little India produce market, you wiped the last fragment of boiled spaghetti away from your lips with a Chipotle napkin and said that only things that bluntly resemble the form of humans can have symbolism. Take the trees, you said, and see how their branches jut out like frozen twizzlers from the lean figure-eight waist — it all looks distinctly like the silhouette of a human body. This is why there are so many poems littered with metaphors about trees. And look ahead at the chipped brick underpass, you said, there is no symbolism in this thing, no blunt resemblance to humankind, just a loaf of carved brick designed to spare our Chevy truck from the humming Jersey rain for a few seconds. Pay no heed to the underpass, pay heed to the trees, you said. 

Now I don’t understand what this Garden State underpass has done to you to be named the most un-symbolic thing on the planet, but, then again, I don’t get a lot of things. For example, how did we two people, one a believer and the other an atheist, find ourselves together in the midst of a wedding. We announced our commitment to each other somewhere in the local mango fields, property of a fruit farmer who was not invited to our ceremony. I did not fancy stealing another man’s oxygen and trespassing like this, but you said that it did no harm, and so we exchanged rings on another man’s property unbeknownst to that man. 

The mangoes of the tree we stood under decorated the tufts of leaves like hairpins and your soft fingers did not hesitate to plunder a fruit from this tree for your lips to bite into, water syrup forming rivers through the lace of your gentle fingers like poetry. I was stunned when you did this. The fruit, mango, was nothing more than a complicated collection of particles to you, but I saw clearly that it was a child of the tree and the property of a man we both didn’t know. In the taxi your brother paid for, I pressed you for a reason as to why plundering the forbidden fruit was the arch for sharing my life with you and you said that it was just a mango, that it didn’t matter, that we shouldn’t fight on our wedding day. 

But our first night together, we fought anyway, this time with pieces of hips and elbows for the first right to the bathroom sink and, in the end, we had to share, like children. In between toothbrushes and shaving cream, with mouth foaming with listerine, dental floss, and toothpaste, I turned to you and said that I would love to be a liquefied mango, or any fruit for that matter, because it would be nice to be able to just disappear down the sink drain sometimes. Except, the part about being a liquefied mango is important because it would be quite horrid to flow down the drain like regular bathroom water. And you spat out a puddle of Colgate toothpaste into the sink and told me that you didn’t understand how mangos could possibly matter. I must have looked crazed to you, defending an eaten mango and then announcing that I want to be a liquified mango. But I didn’t want to tire you with my theory about the universe so what I said, instead, is that I guess what I mean is that I want an overripe mango for breakfast. 

Then dawned the days when you used to bike to Chinatown every morning, through dim sum palaces and dumpling dens, to buy a pound of fresh mangos for me, wearing nothing but husky trousers and that oversized gray Santa Cruz hoodie you once left on the couch and missed a flight to retrieve. And even though you never bothered to fix that brake lever, even New York City traffic didn’t keep you from your bike. Thinking of you one day as you had gone, I came to the conclusion that your Santa Cruz hoodie and your bike spend more time together than your lungs do with air. I wondered what a love letter from your Santa Cruz hoodie to your bicycle would sound like, maybe something like this: 

 

     Dear Bob the bicycle, 

I fell in love with the perfect curves of your tires that carry your full lust. I can fit into any space you allow me to. I wish for our dust to dance together like charcoal at the end of each day, when you’ve tired yourself and return from the dirt and grime of the winding streets.

Love, 

Your Santa Cruz hoodie 

 

I thought the love letter was quite clever, but when I gave it to you, you said that I have this unsettling tendency to pay attention to things that don’t matter, like bicycles, sweatshirts, and pigeons. Stealing a mango from a plastic grocery bag, you said that the rooster windbreaker with a missing “W” and the Chinese minimalists shopping for vegan tofu in China Town don’t matter in the grand scheme of life and the universe. So the next morning, I really tried to not think of the symbolism behind your tongue pushing water through the tube of your throat after 59 push-ups in the foyer, or the meaning behind a person who cuts an apple pie with the knife tilted up at 90, instead of a flat 180 degrees angle, or the symbolism behind the strange way in which you eat spaghetti and meatballs because you, My Lord, are the only living being who can get drunk off of dipping spaghetti, like nachos, into a tomato sauce with eggplant and zucchini. Now the truth of the matter is that I tried to pay no heed to the underlying symbolism of things for about two days, before rolling over and accepting defeat and the fact that cheesecake somehow represents the birth of a child. (A cheesecake is heavy and burdensome on the stomach, buttery, satisfying like the feeling one has after birthing a newborn, but touch the crust, and it crumbles to reveal a world of sin.) 

But you never got how these things could possibly matter because you never cared about the mango from the tree that did not belong to you, or the rooster windbreaker with the missing “W,” or the Chinese minimalists. You don’t remember the three people who always stood leaning on the tar hill cascading around the price pole for diesel in that gas station that bordered our flat. You don’t remember what the moon looked like, crescent or full, that night we built a cardboard airplane out of the cereal boxes in our pantry. That night, I told you that the reason our marriage collapsed was because of the mango and you laughed and asked again how mangos could possibly matter. The truth is that if you had cared about the mango, then the walls of the world would have leaned closer to you, given pieces of itself to you, and held you like honey with the gentlest of arms and lips. 

But the world and its things obviously never mattered to My Lord, you, who never hesitated to plunder and pluck the forbidden fruit and drink the soul of the mango leaves that were summoned to protect you and I, the paired pigeons, from the rest of the world. The people vomited sins and you spat back in the name of the holy Scripture. I am bitter. I wish that the fruit farmer had awoken our marriage night and thrown us both, like Adam and his beloved Eve, with the complementary threats and curses, to the cumbersome paved streets for drinking his property’s air. 

Now if we’re going back to the underpass, My Lord, there is lots of symbolism behind that Garden State underpass. The underpass broke the slaps of the rain as we drove underneath and somewhere in between, I grew up. That underpass is a symbol for our marriage, above all things. We drove Ferraris and Mercedes through each other as if we were somehow able to still stand even with an arching hole simmered through our pooling belly buttons. As we ate the fruits and beets, the things of this world fell from our throats through our bellies and out, though the difference is that I tasted it and you shoved it down your throat. You are like the underpass. You don’t stop to think about the cars and trunks that pass through you. You stand and assert your strength and courage by pushing something as gentle as rain away. The truth is that no one will care when that Garden State Parkway underpass is torn down one day and built into a better, stronger underpass, and the underpass knows that and maybe that’s why it’s so bitter. The underpass breathes, My Lord, just like the mangos breathe. The world beyond our bubble breathes, full inhales and exhales, drunk on the taste of air. It carries lessons and meaning and that’s why something as prosperous as mangos matter to the overarching scheme of the universe. 

 

Zoha Arif is a 16-year-old high school student studying computer science and programming at the Academy for Information Technology. She currently lives in New Jersey and enjoys spilling her strangest ideas into her works of fiction in her free time. She is also an editor for her school newspaper, Polyphony Lit, and E&GJ Press.

Visual arts by Ordy Chen

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Green and Gold

The story opens like this: a small suburban town, incredibly picturesque scenery, high expectations and even higher taxes. A teenage girl mingles with her friends in the hallway in the few sacred minutes before class begins. She looks like the average Chappaqua student. She sounds like the average Chappaqua student. She is one, isn’t she?

Mm, not so much. Before Chappaqua there was Eastchester with its white picket fences and lovely neighbors, where she and her parents piled into a rented single-bedroom, single-bathroom multi-family house for four years. Before Eastchester was the Bronx, a tall apartment with a view of the city skyline from the top floor and piles of rotting garbage from the bottom, where they stayed on the fourth floor for a few years until a drunk man was shot to death in the bar behind their building, after which her parents deemed it high time to move out. Before the Bronx was South Side Chicago, notoriously dangerous, not particularly pleasant either, especially not the grimy studio apartment (demolished a few years after they moved) that she can only remember from photo albums—but her first home nonetheless.

Before that before and even before that, if you really dig deep enough, you’d trace her life tree down through its suburban trunk, into its roots buried in sketchy South Side Chicago soil, through the Americas and across the horizon of the Atlantic.

The real story opens like this: a big city, street lamps blurring together under the ink of night. A 25-year-old newlywed waiting for the 8:15 PM bus calls this city her home, the only home she’s ever known.

She’s a planner and has been one for her whole life. She knows what she’s doing, what she’s capable of, what she wants in life. This city is her childhood and her youth. This life is comfort and familiarity and convention guaranteed to lead to stability.

Above the streetlamp, a sliver of moon hovers, just enough for its beams to skim the dots of drifting snow. The wind warns of an impending storm, tugging at the end of her ponytail and swirling the tip into a brush dipped in the gold of the streetlight glow, ready to paint her future. She looks around herself at the streets she could navigate with her eyes closed, the people she’s loved her entire life, the home she’s slowly built for herself.

Yet she knows there’s more. Her husband just left to study abroad in Illinois. She wants to support him there, and maybe she should. But how can she not think about all of the impossibilities? If she leaves her home, will she ever come back? What about her mother and father and brother? Will she make it in a country whose language she can barely speak, whose culture is entirely foreign, whose location is halfway across the planet? How does she survive financially, socially? Emotionally?

The moon brightens and brightens, fans out across the sky. Hours pass and the snow comes softer, everything rhyming with the word “go”. She thinks again of the impossibilities, and then of the possibilities. The promise of spring, glowing green and gold.

And then she rushes toward it with every ounce of energy she has.

She first works as a minimum-wage fast-food server at a Chinese place in downtown Chicago. She comes home every night nauseous from the sickening smell of oil soaked into her clothes and her hair, hands burned and blistered from the frying pan. For now, no other stores will take her with her poor English. So she studies hard.

Half a year later, a friend introduces her to the owner of a Japanese restaurant a few blocks east and she lands a job immediately. The restaurant is nice, somewhere she might have chosen to dine with a few friends on a Friday night if she were back home. She carries a secret snack stash of edamame beans in the left pocket of her apron and a pocket-size dictionary in the other—here, she relies much more on English. She gets tips now, and a few months later, she and her husband save up enough money to buy a bed frame to go with their mattress.

Because she adores children, her third job is babysitting. It pays well and she grows close to several of the families she works with. She has her very own baby to babysit a year later: her daughter, born on a chilly November morning as twilight surrenders to dawn. Shortly after, her husband receives a job offer in the Bronx, so they say goodbye to their friends (surprised by how sad they are to go), then on a foggy weekend begin their drive to New York City.

The sunsets from the balcony of their new apartment blanket the entire city until only tiny glittering lights are left dotting the skyline across the pier, countless specks of light, countless dreams and wishes. Their room is close to the ground floor so on windy days she gets a whiff of the garbage piles on the streets, but it’s nothing compared to the fast-food place she used to work at. Days bleed into weeks. She upgrades her pocket-size dictionary to a handheld electronic one that she buys from a Dollar Tree two blocks down.

She takes her daughter to the library near their apartment and explains to the librarians in what broken English she can muster that she’s going back to school soon, that she’ll be busy but can’t afford a nanny, asks if it’s okay to maybe drop her daughter off on the weekends. And so it’s between the beanbag chairs and lime green leather couches with the help of the librarians that her daughter learns how to sound English letters out, how to put them into mysterious bundles called words, how to read—and god, after she learns how to read, there’s really no stopping it. She sees the way her daughter falls in love with the adrenaline rush of a plot twist, the desperate itch of a cliffhanger, the way the page opens up doors to worlds and people that don’t even exist in this dimension of the universe.

Outside of those library walls, weeks blur into months, months into years. She’s back in school for her master’s degree: classes in the morning, interning in the afternoon, work in the evening, homework deep into the night as the sky blackens and blackens then pales again, hinting at dawn. A few hours of sleep. Repeat.

Seven hundred sunsets and sunrises later, she receives her diploma and a New York State teaching certificate and an indescribable feeling of warmth. Her daughter is growing up. When she lands a second interview for the first time, she buys herself a laptop to replace the battered electronic dictionary that she barely even needs anymore, switches out her flip-phone for the newest Nokia. They move out to the suburbs into a good school district that’s two hours away, but she takes up the offer at the Brooklyn elementary school anyway when they tell her she’s hired. It’s the first call she gets on her smartphone and she saves the number into her contacts with shaking hands.

Sure, she’d like to sleep past 5 AM and not commute for four hours a day, but she loves teaching more, and she loves her daughter the most. The sun blazes and blazes, pans out across the sky. The glow of spring is here.

My mother’s story is one in 37 million. Most of those voices remain unheard, memories buried, some families even separated at the border of two countries. In so many ways, my mom was lucky for being admitted legally, for being with her loved ones from the very beginning, for being able, after all these years, to pass on her story to her daughter, who will pass it on to the world. Because stories like her mother’s deserve to be told.

To make the choice she did meant that she viewed the world in a way I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around. She saw her life through a lens larger than herself, far larger, and I’m eternally grateful for that lens and for her unrelenting dedication, for not only her sacrifices, but also the mindset she instills in me by simply existing.

Her decisions have shaped me more than anything else has. I moved around a lot as a kid. It’s ingrained in who I am. From a young age, I learned to say hello and goodbye to people, because chances were I wouldn’t get another chance if I passed this one. I learned that home is where the heart is, that my family would always be my sun, unfailingly there for me every morning to keep me alive and warm. I learned that my friends are just asteroids orbiting in my life, just like I’m an asteroid in theirs. One day they’ll spin off into the abyss and new ones will come, and that’s okay. Everything I have in my tiny universe is temporary, but that’s kind of the beauty of it, isn’t it?

I’m writing this on my porch steps right now. It’s getting dark and I should probably head back before the mosquitoes get to me. But the moon is almost out in the same Chicago sky I was born under a decade and a half ago, and its faint outline greets me, a lullaby of dulcet silver against rich velvet on a hazy summer night. And if I just give myself a minute, if I’m still enough, I might hear the faint jingle of the New York City ice cream truck accompanied by an orchestra of sirens and honks. A breeze might bring a whiff of that citrus-flavored candy my mom used to buy for me on her way home from work, and I might just feel the tickle of grass in my small picket-fenced backyard in suburban Eastchester. Even with my eyes closed, I can imagine so vividly the roses that climb up my neighbor’s trellis here in Chappaqua, where the stars are brighter than city lights; I’ll picture the sunflowers and little dandelion seeds choreographed by the wind, and I’ll know, truly, that I owe everything to her.

On her twentieth wedding anniversary last week, she sat me down as the guests left, pulling out of our driveway one by one as the sun dipped behind the clouds. Tell my story, she said. Tell it to the world, dear. Write something for me.

I will, I promised her. But you’ve got to teach me your secrets first. How did you do it?

And she just laughed, took my hands in her calloused ones. I could see every wrinkle around the corners of her eyes. Sometimes, she said to me, it’s almost as though she can see herself standing at the airport alone, waiting at life’s crossroads, clutching onto a map of fate without any labels and racing down a one-way street that could very well be a dead-end—but racing anyway, because she knew that it would be worth it.

If not for herself, then for her husband. If not for herself, then for her parents and their parents, watching from above. If not for herself, then for her daughter’s life tree and its Chicago roots, for all of its branches that have yet to sprout, for the hope that its leaves, under the warmth of the spring sun, will bud green and gold.

 

16-year-old Zoya Yan is a junior attending Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, New York. As a first-generation American, she loves to explore her heritage through her writing. In her spare time, Zoya enjoys reading and napping with a preference for the latter.

Art by Noah Jones

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Chance Block

Rosey first heard about the fire after club announcements ended, as all the students filed out from the auditorium toward Chance Block. Some of the freshmen were talking about it, and flowing down the hallway with the vast tide of tired high-schoolers, she caught snippets of their conversation.

“In the cafeteria… someone said… fire—”

“UHNUH,” a senior boy grunted, drowning out the freshmen’s chatter.

Rosey put her fingers in her ears. She knew all too well after three weeks that grunts were contagious: first the other senior boys would grunt back, then all at once the hallways and classrooms would burst into a many-layered chorus of grunts, each louder than the next, as the younger boys struggled to prove that they, too, were masculine enough to bellow like angry cavemen.

Rosey walked halfway across campus before she took her fingers out of her ears, sure that Mozart’s Sixth Symphony in Grunt had subsided. Ugh , she thought, remembering the freshmen’s conversation. Probably another fire drill . At least it’ll be during Chance Block.

Nobody, least of all Rosey, understood Chance Block. Held after the final class every three days, the 45-minute period was one of those weird experiments to which private schools lik the Winthrop-Hall Institute for Technical Education (or WHITE, as all their sweaters read) occasionally subjected their students. Its official definition was completely incomprehensible, brimming with hallowed education buzzphrases such as “cooperative learning” and “21st century citizenship.” But as far as Rosey could tell, Chance Block boiled down to an awkward 45 minutes that athletes often missed for games. Since no administrator had the guts to send kids home early, they needed the time to be crucial—while also inconsequential. The only problem was, nobody had yet figured out how to make the period both vitally important and wholly unimportant. Instead, every few weeks the administrators opened up an old Monopoly set, picked a new Chance card—hence the name—and imposed whatever instructions they found on the students.

This week, the administrators pulled a blank card and decided the school would test its most revolutionary idea yet: assigning each teacher to babysit a random group of students who would figure out for themselves how to make the time educational.

Rosey couldn’t remember which of the middle-aged math teachers she had been assigned to (they were all just nerdy white guys in various stages of balding), but she did know that Courtney—the talkative girl from her AP Auctioneering class—was in the same group, so when the crowd thinned out, Rosey approached her.

“Hey, do you know where we’re going for Chance Block?” she asked, tapping Courtney on her shoulder.

“What’d you say?” Courtney said, whirling around to face Rosey. “Sorry. God, I’m so tired—I was up until five a.m. doing the Auctioneering paper. That book took, like, forevvvvver to read.” A five-page paper discussing the eight pound real estate book they’d read was due that day.

“You read it all last night?” Rosey couldn’t believe it. After all, they had been assigned little sections of the book each night for two weeks.

“Yes! I mean, okay, no, but like, Sparknotes takes a while to read, too.”

“Right,” Rosey laughed nervously. “Anyway, do you know where we’re going for Chance Block?”

Courtney giggled. “Of course, silly, I love Mr. Borkus. Follow me.”

As they walked, Rosey remembered that Courtney had announced a club.

“Hey, which club did you say you were starting?” Rosey asked. Everyone started clubs at WHITE, although only two or three of them ever got past the first meeting.

“The Diversity and Inclusivity club! It’s me and a bunch of my friends.”

“Oh,” replied Rosey, grimacing. An all-white diversity club. “Are you into, like, social justice and all that?”

Courtney shrugged. “I mean, enough. Whatever. Gotta get into college somehow.”

When they reached the math room, five or six other students were already there sitting around a large table with blank looks on their faces. There was Harry, the lacrosse player whose voice was usually hoarse from grunting; Samantha, the girl who was always doing homework; and some seniors Rosey didn’t know very well. Courtney sat across the table next to Harry, immediately opening her laptop—a rose gold Macbook—to the Brandy Melville website. Rosey, on the other hand, sat in the nearest empty seat.

While they waited for Mr. Borkus, Rosey watched Courtney’s fingers run absentmindedly through her hair. Maybe I should dye my hair blonde, too , Rosey thought, and straighten it. Her eyes traveled down to Courtney’s neck, where a golden letter C hung from a rose gold chain like an expensive name tag. I could be like her , thought Rosey. She imagined herself with the other girls taking pictures like the ones she always saw on Instagram, all of them in that pose that said “I’m not showing off my ass, but like, did I mention I have an ass?”

A clatter toward the front of the room yanked Rosey from her thoughts: Mr. Borkus had arrived.

“Hey guys, welcome to Chance Block.” Mr. Borkus began in a bored voice. “About half an hour ago a fire started in the cafeteria when a burnt-out teacher tried to panini press his computer. Unfortunately, all the fire extinguishers were crushed in that one experimental art project. Now, the principal said we’re supposed to let you all decide what to do about the fire, okay? He said it’ll be, like, a collaborative, 21st century, student-driven alternative assessment.”

Rosey looked around. Some of the students were on their computers; others were fast asleep. Rosey’s eyes began to feel heavy, too. Mr. Borkus was still talking. “—and so the only rule is you can’t be doing homework.” At this, Samantha’s eyes shot up from her work.

“Sorry, but can I do homework? There’s an Honors Puppetry assignment due tomorrow.” She motioned to two worn socks with frowny faces drawn on. “And did you say fire?”

“Yes!” Mr. Borkus seemed to be realizing how little anyone cared. “Guys! There’s a real fire—not a drill. It’s already spread to this building, so we need to figure out how to extinguish it.” Some students raised their heads, looked around groggily for a moment, then put them back down.

“We could use the water fountains—” offered a quiet boarding student named Tim.

“But can we please do homework?” Courtney interjected. A couple of students nodded in agreement.

“Yeah, why can’t we, like, work on our own stuff? Someone else will put out the fire,” agreed Harry, who, with his whirling mouse and laser-like focus on his computer, was clearly engaged in an epic round of Fortnite. Mr. Borkus looked to be at a loss for words, and an awkward silence fell over the room. Rosey tried to think of something to say, but the vast apathy of her classmates was paralyzing.

No one spoke. Harry was trying to conceal clouds of vapor as he puffed on his Juul. The room started to feel hot, smoke drifting in through the cracked door—or was that just another of Harry’s clouds? Mr. Borkus began to pace frantically, muttering to himself about student-driven death. Rosey was still deciding what to say when tongues of flame came under the door, ready to engulf the classroom.

Hewson Duffy is a 16 year old writer and photographer who attends St. Anne’s Belfield School in Charlottesville, VA. His work has been published in Aerie International and Polyphony Lit. When not writing, he is probably drinking chocolate milk.

Visual arts by Anastasia James. 

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Pulse

 

i.

The boys share a single room. They sleep on the floor, stomachs splayed on bamboo mats, passing stories in muffled whispers as their mothers’ incense filters through the sliding door. They lay in clusters and pop sunflower seeds in their mouths the way their grandmothers do every night in the kitchen, sticky rice glued to their gums to fill in missing teeth. Tonight the boys debate whether they can sneak beer from the night market. Zhou thinks that there will be pretty girls from Beijing, the ones with wide set hips and straight eyebrows and fake double-eyelids carved on the front of cheap magazines that the boys hide beneath the floorboards. The boys lick the salt from their lips and under the blankets you can taste swordfish and pickled vegetables fermenting between their teeth. Yong claims an old man once beat him for stealing cigarettes from a push cart. He rolls down his pants to show everyone his purpling bruise. Wang Wen doesn’t believe him, kicks Yong in the shin and cusses him out with words that would later be washed out with his father’s fingers down his throat. Limbs push and pull against each other as the boys arm-wrestle, placing bets to see who will be the first one to sneak through the window. Bei Qing bumps into another boy, the one named Chao Cheng whose chin grows facial hair as sparse as the fuzz on rambutan fruit. Piss off, duanxiu, Chao Cheng shoves him away. He spits from the space between his two front teeth. Bei Qing rolls over, feels a foot come down on his neck, hot and thick against his throat. Duanxiu, dianxiu, the other boys chatter. Short-sleeves, short-sleeves. They pile on him, a feast of humming termites and whistling cicadas, snapping their fingernails against his back, dotting his skin with red bites. In the other room, the fathers slide their hands across their laps and the mothers get on their knees and pray, pray their sons go off to university and become doctors in America and marry delicate wives with V-shape chins and thin calves perched upon tiny feet. Behind the symphony of fluttering hands and cracking belts and rustling clothes, Bei Qing’s mother prays for her son to marry a lady, marry her until she drowns in oranges and rice wine and her stomach swells twice times—once for a boy and once for a girl.

ii.

Bei Qing. The professor never gets his name right, always pronounces it bitching. Bitching, bitching, bitching. The class laughs and the professor flushes red, blue veins popping out from her forehead. The girls sitting behind Bei Qing giggle in sharp intonations. Mei guo qi, American flag, they cackle. Today the class studies Emperor Ai of Han. All the students remember the story from high school, but the professor insists they don’t. When she opens her mouth, Bei Qing realizes she does not speak in an English he understands. He squirms in his chair and watches the boy sitting in front of him. The boy spits on his desk and uses his finger to spread the wetness across the table. When it dries, he reaches his hand under his shirt and wipes what’s left on his stomach. The girls behind him shift around, hike their skirts up a little higher and gossip in a dialect Bei Qing doesn’t recognize. The professor is engrossed in her own motions, pointing to an image on the projector. It’s a painting of the emperor and his commander. The commander’s head lays on his lap, face fixed in a calm smile. It’s the passion of the cut sleeve—rather than waking his commander, the emperor simply cuts off the sleeve of his robes, leaving the other man undisturbed. The professor uses a yardstick to outline a triangle on the painting. Renaissance beauty, she explains. This three-sided composition. Heavily inspired by Italian artists, no doubt. She shrugs her shoulders, pushes her glasses into her bulging forehead. How many of you are familiar with the story of the cut-sleeve? It’s spectacular, really. Spectacular. The boy sitting in front of Bei Qing wets his thumb and forefinger again before raising his hand, slick and shiny. He ignores the professor’s glare and asks, did the emperor also chop off his arm off? 

iii.

Bei Qing proposes to the girl on her nineteenth birthday. They fly back to Beijing but lose themselves on their way to City Hall. They stop at street vendors and old men huddled on cardboard boxes, mouths forming shapes but sounds getting caught on their tongues. It’s a hellish midnight hour and they’re whisked underground by the enticing smell of salt and smoke. A single room, surrounded by heavy limbs and heavy breath and heavy bodies swaying in the hiccups and the laughter. Everywhere bleeds music, and Bei Qing feels the bass pass through him with every stroke. His wife sits next to him at the bar, one leg draped over his, the other clinging to a stranger’s ankle. Bei Qing finds the boy thrashing against the far wall. He is dressed in a silver suit with matching pants and nothing underneath. His jacket throws blue and white across his face. His neck is pink from a single shot of baijiu, his chest as bare as the professor’s engorged forehead. Mei quo qi, mei guo qi, the words are passed under tables and between wadded bills. There’s a not-quite-throbbing in Bei Qing’s head. Thoughts protruding in sharp angles, begging for release. So he waits, runs a hand down his wife’s calf and teases her hair with his middle finger. He stares past the crowd to observe the curve of the boy’s Adam’s apple, to count the red marks on his collarbone. The boy is swarmed with bodies, bulging thighs, fabric and flesh cut from broken wine bottles. Ya nan, Bei Qing’s father would call them, whisking the young boys out of the night markets, ya nan ya nan ya nan. Bei Qing feels one slide up next to him, dressed in a sleeveless white shirt and metal cuffs, a holy uniform, the kind his mother wore when she bent in half between Buddha’s legs and prayed for her son with her mouth wide open and she prayed so hard and she prayed until her upper lip melted with sweat and her tongue tingled with a bitterness she couldn’t swallow. Bei Qing’s hand tightens on his drink. He takes a sip, curls his lips around his teeth and holds the ice cube there, numbing his chin. But the pounding in his head gets louder, more insistent, and Bei Qing knows this warmth, this slow buildup of warmth in his gut and the drumbeat heat radiating off his cheeks. He loops his fingers through his belt loops and swallows. Across the bar, the boy continues to dance, his spine bending and bowing, still searching, still seeking. A ya nan rips off his jacket and three more bear down on the dragon tattoo etched on his shoulder. China’s symbol of divinity, legs spread, mouth weaving through slick bodies, dribbling saliva as the boy waves and ripples beneath the pulsing lights. Krystal Yang is a high school senior from BASIS Independent Silicon Valley in San Jose, California. Her work, inspired by her travels and personal experiences, has been featured in Crashtest Magazine, Polyphony Lit, and Rising Star Magazine. Aside from writing fiction, she is also a lover of dance, sharks, and green tea (unsweetened). Tagged : / / / / /

Not Your Numbers

I was five when I decided that I wanted to be a writer, but when you’re born into a first-generation Korean-American family, even at five, you learn to hold your tongue about your ambitions. Instead, I confided in my grandfather—curled around him in his library, I told him what I was afraid to tell my own parents. He looked at me sympathetically as if he knew there would be so much that I’d have to endure to even have a chance at writing, and whispered, “There needs to be someone in this family who is in love with what they do.” I wrapped my arms around him; I think I cried.

I’m sure somewhere throughout my academic career I convinced myself that my writing was inconsequentially a part of who I was. Somewhere along my timeline were moments that led up to it: my third grade teacher putting “incredible!” at the top of all my writing, the speech I wrote in sixth grade that my teacher called “irrefutably beautiful” before I even knew what ‘irrefutably’ meant, the essay contest I won at the beginning of my junior year of high-school. I’m sure five-year-old me unknowingly learned to tie the voice in my writing to who I was. I’m sure I expected to grow into my identity as a writer like toddlers expect to grow into their parents’ clothes when they play dress up, even when they’re so small that the sleeves hang off their arms and trail on the ground behind them.

But on my seventeenth birthday, I lost my first writing competition—a mandated essay given by my school’s junior year English teachers. It was only then that I became solemnly convinced by the itchy feeling of lost ambition that the dream that I intended to grow up into didn’t fit me right around the shoulders and didn’t hug me in all the right places and left me a forgone version of myself. I wasn’t upset because I lost, as I explained to my English teacher shortly after, I was upset because I seemed to have deceived myself for years that this dream that I held so close to my heart was not mine to hold. I was upset because I felt as though a piece of me died: the only piece of me that I loved unconditionally.

Naturally, most people responded to my unsettlement by insisting that this one loss was not a reflection of who I was as a writer: it didn’t invalidate my writing or my love for my craft. Instead, to everyone else, it was just what it seemed to be—a loss. Friends and family couldn’t
comprehend why I was so upset, and truthfully, neither could I. It was only after taking a step back from the situation that I realized that the root of why I was so torn up was because somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that my writing was directly correlated to my worth. So if my writing wasn’t enough, I wasn’t either.

Suddenly, as I walked the halls of my academically competitive high-school, I realized that students from all across the board tied their worth to marks on papers and numbers on scantrons. In the same way that I believed my writing had a direct correlation to my worth, my peers held the same mentality about the numbers on their transcripts. And so did I. I became overtly cognizant of how unhealthy and unstable that attitude could be, but I could not abandon it. Even as I talked to peers throughout many different grade levels, they remarked that they felt the same way, but there was nothing they could do to change it. Having your worth determined by numbers and letters seemed to be a frightening standardization that most students are all too willing to accept as the general norm. As public school education becomes more competitive in the coming years, it will only get worse.

When I entered high-school, my ambition for writing was still there, so I’m confident that age didn’t distort my vision at all. Instead what I’ve come to realize throughout my years of public education is that the moment I began losing faith in that dream was when I started to see myself as a reflection of my grades rather than my passion: two-dimensional numbers on transcripts. The grade at the top of my in-class essay was more important than the writing that went into it—somehow the words on the page seemed to matter less than the single letter at the top of my paper. Who I was as a writer and a student became determined by people who only knew me for forty minutes a day, five days a week, and I let their impression of me and my work become a direct reflection of who I was. In retrospect, it’s no wonder I began hating what I saw in the mirror. It’s no wonder that so many students feel the same way.

School administrators nationwide tell students that their grades do not define them and that they’re more than the letters written on their transcripts. But they also recognize them as seven-digit student IDs and judge them by what can be valued on paper. Even the most well-rounded students get processed through the mass machine of public education and come out the other side two-dimensional. We insist that a set of numbers doesn’t define our children—we’re wrong.

Adam Grant, the author of “What Straight-A Students Get Wrong,” remarks that grades have little correlation with “creativity… and teamwork skills,” yet students still equate their worth to them, “[creating] an academic arms race,… [where]… students… strive for meaningless perfection.” The root of this problem has nothing to do with misconception—students are, for the most part, overwhelmingly aware of the fact that, in the long run, their SAT and AP exam scores won’t matter. The genuine issue is that it isn’t enough that in the long run, they won’t matter, because in their current state in their existing classrooms, they view their worth as directly correlated by those types of exams. The now is more critical, more consuming than the long-term consequences. Grant even illustrates the concept that in the workforce, more successful people are actually the students with lower GPAs and exam scores, and their high-scoring counterparts usually cannot find the strength within themselves to excel in real-world scenarios. We raise our children through a public education system that has almost no correlation between working in their schools and working in the real world. However, even if students know all this, and I’m afraid most of them do, they are still compelled by the notion to aim for the unobtainable. Because it’s not just their grades on the line, it’s their self-worth too.

Ideally, students would earn grades reflective of the time and effort they put in, but in reality, students who employ lucky guesswork on multiple choice exams are essentially equal to the students who know how to do the accurate work to complete problems. Because there’s no difference between these types of answers or students, students see their efforts as meaningless, or worse, fruitless, convinced they aren’t doing enough if they don’t have grades to show for it. Schools put awarding work ethic, and effort in the backseat behind the actual grades students earn, encouraging them to believe that how hard they work isn’t what matters—at the end of the day, it’s all about the number.

Stanford columnist Annie Jia references psychologist Madeline Levine’s quote that when students “‘feel… they’re only as good as their last performance, [they develop]… the inability to construct an internal sense of self.’” When you base your self-perception on your own and other people’s merits, you’re disappointed continuously, ceding to the same malicious mindset of many students. While academic competition is healthy and constructive for most school environments, the same competition can become debilitating and destructive for students if they don’t understand that their grades are not a determinant factor of their worth. The institution of this mass mentality leads kids to believe that if their grades aren’t as good as their peers, neither are they. Numbers only define this spectrum of self-worth; it doesn’t take into consideration students’ moral standing, personality, work ethic, or character.

When you don’t know the boy in your physics class, but know he has a C; when you’ve never spoken to that girl in history class, but you know her last quiz grade, understand that it’s easy to hang a number over someone’s head to measure their worth; it’s hard to look at people as more than that. Students do it all over the nation, and if we raise a generation so number-obsessed, aren’t we raising a generation that will never be satisfied with their worth or their accomplishments. Aren’t we raising children who invariably go through a cycle of believing that they are not good enough if they don’t have the numbers to show for it? Changing how you see people doesn’t require changing the world—it requires changing yours. Though schools determine students’ merit by grades earned and classes taken, I remind myself that students must be more than that. Because in the end, students aren’t two-dimensional reflections of a number, a letter, or a transcript, but products of passion, ambition, and heart: things that cannot be measured on paper.

Sara Jhong is a high school junior at Great Neck South High School on Long Island, New York. She has won awards from previous writing competitions in the past and greatly enjoys the Parallax Journal.

Displacement by Sumin Seo

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Grow a House

Part I

Before my sister started smoking cigarettes, she loved to visit the old, abandoned treehouse in our neighborhood. Often times, she took me along with her to the treehouse, which perched on its thick-leaved oak tree like an ailing raven. Sometimes, she did her homework in the treehouse, but most of the time she gazed out the window, staring longingly at the grassy hills in the distance.

During one of these viewings, a wind swept up, lifting the red and gold autumn leaves from a ground. My sister’s eyes fixed on something in the air, and she leaned over the windowsill with an outstretched arm.

When she leaned so far that it looked like she might fall, I called out to her, “Vivi!” However, she didn’t fall. Her hand closed around something. Backing away from them window, she stared at the object in her palm. I stepped behind her and peeked over her shoulder. It was a scarlet and pearl-colored feather, unlike any bird feather that I had seen. Wordlessly, Vivi slipped the feather into her pocket. She took my hand, and we walked back to our house. All the way home, she stayed silent, so I didn’t say anything.

Part II

Later, Vivi explained to me that the feather was a good luck charm. She carried it with her wherever she went, tucking it in her pocket or her backpack. It was around this time that she began to believe that everything could grow on trees. One time, she plucked the seeds from an orange and buried them in our front yard.

“What are you doing, Vivi?” I asked.

“Growing a house,” She nodded toward our cracked-wood home barely big enough to fit us.

I gave her a confused look.

She explained, “We’ll grow them until they’re big enough. Then we’ll live in them.”

“But oranges can’t grow that big.”

“They will if we take care of them.”

The orange tree grew and gave us juicy fruit every summer. Every year, Vivi picked the oranges, tucking her scarlet-and-pearl feather in the basket. However, each time, she was disappointed that the oranges weren’t big enough. Even when she was fourteen, she still clung to the idea of growing oranges into houses.

When she was fifteen, she came home with the basket of fruit and ate them expressionlessly.

“You’re not upset?” I asked.

“Why would I be upset?”

“The oranges still aren’t big enough.”

“For what?”

“The house.”

She stared at me for a second before saying, “Oh, that house. I was stupid. Don’t know why I ever believed it.”

Then she pulled a cigarette out of her pocket and lit it.

Part III

Neither my parents nor I could figure out what happened to Vivi. First, she snapped at Mom for asking her to clean the dishes. Then, she stormed out of the house and returned three days later. Finally, she smoked a cigarette in our backyard.

Mom and Dad tried to take the cigarettes away, but Vivi walked out of the house and threatened to disappear into the city streets. I told her that she wouldn’t, that she wasn’t that stupid, but the crazed looked in her eyes made me unsure.

Eventually, Vivi stopped attending school, and anyone who tried to convince her to go back to school would suffer her wrath. On the day Vivi would have graduated from high school, she drove us both in her dirt-crusted car to the grocery store, swaddling herself in a too-big gray jacket.

When we walked out, carrying bags of bananas, oranges, jerky, and bread, I said, “The car’s this way—”

“We’re going over there,” she said. I knew that she was going to take a smoke. Though Vivi was eighteen, she still looked sixteen, and she hated the “you’re too young” looks casted at her when she smoked.

We stopped in an alley and she lit her cigarette. I stood quietly, breathing in the smoke.

“So, there’s no climbing out of this rat hole,” she said.

“What?”

“Stupid I was, believing that I would be able to get out. I woke up long ago. There is no climbing out. Broke people are destined to have broke lives. Our fault is that we are born to moms and dads who barely make enough to feed us.”

“Vivi?”

She turned and looked at me.

“I don’t think that’s right,” I said.

She crouched down so that our faces were level, “I was once like you, so hopeful. Do you know what made me indulge in such lies?”

“No,” I answered quietly.

“Do you remember that feather I used to put in the orange basket? The one that I caught in the treehouse?”

I nodded.

“Well, it had the colors no bird had. I thought it must’ve been a gift from the heavens, or something watching over us. It was such a bright color that I was sure that it was a sign that we would make it out.”

Vivi paused, her breathing shaky. Then continued, “All those years, I carried it with me, slipping it into the orange basket. Then, one day, I dropped the basket into a puddle of water, and you know what happened?”

I shook my head.

“The color leeched right out of that thing. It was just a plain dove’s feather colored with dye, probably fallen off from someone’s old feather duster.”

She laughed humorlessly, “I should’ve figured it out long before. The oranges would never grow bigger than the ones at the store. What a fool of a child I was.”

With one hand, she reached into a grocery bag and threw an orange at the wall in front of her, juice splattering in her face, her laugh echoing down the alley. My heart pounded. I didn’t know what she would do next. My only thought was I didn’t want to find out. So, I ran and used some loose change to ride a bus home.

I’m still ashamed of how I acted.

Part IV

Soon after high school, I headed to college. Now, I am a journalist at a national newspaper.

After that day in the alley, I set out to prove Vivi wrong. It couldn’t be true that I was destined to have a broken life. I took jobs at restaurants to save up for college, applied for scholarships and studied for exams every free moment I had. There were times when I was screaming that I wouldn’t make it.

I’ve seen Vivi only once since I left her in the alley. Neither our parents nor I know where she lives. Somedays, I wonder if it would’ve been different if I hadn’t run from her. Maybe she would’ve felt more welcome. Maybe she wouldn’t.

The one time I saw Vivi was last week, when I was visiting our hometown. She came to our parents’ house for some food, dressed in patched up pants and shirt. We sat on the lawn, staring at the now-towering orange tree, while she smoked a cigarette.

After a long stretch of silence, I said, “Remember when you wanted to grow those oranges into houses?”

She held still for a moment, then nodded.

“Well, they still aren’t big enough,” I continued.

“I noticed.”

“But,” I said, gesturing at the tree’s tallest branches, “The tree’s big enough to make a treehouse.”

She didn’t respond for a few seconds. Then, she laughed. The sound bellowed through the neighborhood, filling it to its brim.

When she finally stopped laughing, she looked up and put her cigarette down, the tears in her eyes shimmering like a blood red sun.

Jieyan Wang is a high school junior in northern Idaho. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and published in Teen Ink. In her free time, she loves to play the piano and paint flowers.

The featured art piece is by Anthony Johnson, titled “Alone.”

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Revitalized

 


 Thank you.
Thank you for the love.
Thank you for the fear.
Thank you for the tears.
Thank you for the rejection.
Because I learned to like being alone.


Thank you for the love.

Your cheeks are aching from all the smiling.

It is around dinner time when the baby blue color of the sky fades into shades of pink and lavender. Leo’s hands intertwine around your waist, and his head rests gently on your shoulder. The smell of his cotton perfume, which he adamantly argues is not limited to a woman’s scent, fills the space around you (and the entire apartment—it is quite strong). Staring out from the slightly dusty windows of the living room, you and Leo watch the sunset and frequently comment on some of the bizarre outfits of your neighbors outside, laughing a bit too loud when cranky Mrs. Dallows leaves the complex to walk her three Pomeranians in an electric purple jumpsuit paired with knee-high striped socks.

“Look! Mrs. Dallo—oh god—” you breathlessly manage to get out. Leo’s chuckling from behind, and you can feel the soft vibrations of his chest on your back.

“I feel like I’m in The Wizard of Oz all of a sudden!” he laughs.

Then, mindlessly, you crook your head to the side, locking your eyes with his doe ones. Bliss. It’s the only word that comes to mind when you’re with him.

Leo faces you, his eyes lingering a second too long on your lips. When he looks back to your eyes, which are still gazing at him, his cheeks wrinkle as he smiles, and he’s hugging you tighter.

“I love you,” you suddenly blurt out.

“I love you, too.”

And even though you’ve been together for three years, that’s all it takes to get your hands clammy and your heart beating erratically.


Thank you for the fear.

Your cheeks are sore from constantly gnawing on the insides of your mouth.

Sounds of light rain echo through the busy streets, and people are still out and about, socializing even during the darker hours.

You’re waiting. You’ve been waiting for an hour and twenty minutes now, and there’s still no sign of Leo.

Today is supposed to be a reunion date, where you both can catch up, after Leo’s month in Spain with his friends. Specifically, catch up on the past few months because you’re both living hectic lives: Leo with his new office career as a manager and you with your graduate school schedule and studies in English. Classes overlapped with business projects, internships with late-night shifts. But, despite the conflicts, it wasn’t like you to easily give up on a relationship, especially when you still think about Leo wherever you go. So, you desperately cling onto hope.

You wince when you accidentally bite your tongue and grab for the cup of water, which stands alongside a glass of Coke—his favorite—that stopped fizzing an hour ago. It’s pitiful. The side-stares you’re getting from the happily married couple on your right, the glances from the waiters, who are too nice to ask you to leave, and the replies you have yet to receive from your missing-in-action boyfriend.

You wonder if it’s worth calling Leo when you’ve already texted him every five minutes. But, scrolling through the previous messages in your conversation, you decide against it. He hasn’t messaged you anything longer than “no” or “sure” for over five months now.

It’s okay, you think. Leo’s probably jet-lagged and sleeping right now, you attempt to comfort yourself. But, your heart clenches funnily, and your lips begin to quiver.

The fear of losing him has haunted you for too long for you to spit out another reassurance. So, you leave the restaurant in hopes that the blackness of the night will hide your shaking shoulders.


Thank you for the tears.

Your cheeks become stained from crying.

It’s been a long day of classes, and, in between each one, you are either half-running to a building on the far end of campus or haphazardly stuffing a bagel into your mouth to satiate your grumbling stomach. It’s one of those days where Professor Helen didn’t get much sleep and screamed at you in front of the class about how your essay papers weren’t double sided. One of those days where your clumsy hands decide to spill hot coffee onto your new jeans and where you want to be with Leo, even after months of your daily calls going ignored and your date plans postponed.

Are you two still together? In your heart, yes. Even now, he has you wrapped around his finger.

The afternoon wind brushes the exposed parts of your skin, chilling your ankles and slapping against your face and neck. You are walking back to your apartment, choosing this over the bus or taxi so that the coldness of the winter will completely obliterate the thoughts in your mind.

Strolling through the city, you feel mocked by the buoyant sounds of laughter coming from the restaurants and cafes at each block, and there is a twang of jealousy every time an elderly couple or family walks past you. But, all the pessimistic thoughts come to a halt when you see him. The man who you cared for and loved; the one who made you feel so worried for the past seven months; the one who seemed to carry no worries as he walks towards you, his hands enclosed with another woman’s.

The clicking sound of your shoes ceases at once. You can’t take your eyes off of Leo, and maybe it’s your rapidly heaving chest or your tear stained cheeks that reflects the city lights, but his eyes meet yours. His smile falters at the sight of you.

Please, don’t leave me here like this, you plead with your eyes.

But perhaps her beauty is more outstanding than yours. Perhaps you look too embarrassing for Leo to approach you. Perhaps he can no longer conjure up his feelings of endearment for you. Maybe that is why he averts his gaze to her, scratches his head as if he sees nothing, and calmly walks past you.

Are you two still together? In his heart, no, and the thought of that breaks you.

Muffled whimpers escaped from your throat while streams of tears burn your numb face. The signs of the restaurants become far too blurry to read. Once again, you hope the city lights will disappear and the darkness of the night will hide your shaking shoulders.


Thank you for the rejection.

Your cheeks squish against your pillow.

You wake up on the couch with stains of wine on your shirt, but it doesn’t bother you. For the last few weeks, you’ve greeted every morning on the couch.

Since the breakup, or so you assume, you’ve come to realize that you can swat away or ease sadness, but you can’t avoid loneliness. Loneliness clings so tight that you begin suffocating. Loneliness can’t seem to get enough of you, hindering your ability to properly eat, sleep, study, or function as a normal human being. It creeps into your dreams, your mornings, your nights, and into your mind. It constantly reminds you of the image of Leo and that woman.

Do people drift away from each other this easily? you wonder.

You can’t help but look through pictures of you and him when there was happiness at the very beginning of the relationship. At the time, Leo was the type of guy who would walk you past your home so that he could spend the ten minutes it takes to go around the neighborhood to be with you. But now you realize that he was distancing himself because he was too much of a coward to tell you directly, I don’t love you anymore. Then again, could you handle the impact of those five words?


Because I learned to like being alone.

Your cheeks are getting hit by the rays of the sun.

By the time the sun has fully risen, you’re skipping from your bedroom to the kitchen to make breakfast. Pancakes have become your favorite breakfast food these days, and you begin mixing the batter after you turn on the turquoise colored record player, a recent splurge for yourself, to play some Frank Sinatra. From the refrigerator, you pull out a few strawberries and a handful of blueberries to top the pancakes. Sitting on the couch, you look out the window and smile, seeing the beautiful cherry blossom trees and dainty flowers fully open to admire, for the new season of spring had finally come.

Sometimes, when you’re greeted with the scent of cotton or see your still oddly dressed neighbors, you think of him. Sure, there was no exact closure or apology, but you’ve come to a point where there are no poignant thoughts about him. It took time and the understanding that you can depend on and be satisfied with yourself to stop rebuilding the walls that had been torn down from hurt and rejection. You even learned to embrace doing the activities you used to do with Leo alone—taking walks around town, enjoying Friday nights with movies and wine, or dancing to music.

Feeling fulfilled, you munch on your delicious pancakes, grin at the sight of Mrs. Dallows walking her Poms, and feel content with only the sound of music filling your apartment.

 

Mina Kim is currently a senior at Henry M. Gunn High School who has been enjoying creative writing through her class at school this year. She especially loves freewriting on sense or specific detail. In her free time, Mina likes to travel with her family, drink coffee, and doodle in her journal.

Photograph, titled “Inhale,” by Jules Landa Ventre.

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Scars

When I look at my wrists, I expect to see her scars. It doesn’t matter when I glimpse them—at dance, in the shower, on the bus—it always seems wrong that they are unblemished, perfect and whole in every way that hers are not. I can’t feel any other way, not when we live an hour apart and yet I keep her tucked in my pocket, closer than any neighbor. I never stop checking for her texts; I pause in the middle of phone calls with others just to type my replies. When she asks for a high number, I give it to her without question, and agree that yes, I will send her 93 texts if it will keep her from putting scissors to her skin and making more of those wounds. My English presentation can wait until we’re done—it can wait forever if it needs to. I ask my friends from school, the people who somehow have become less important than a girl who ever since we left camp has existed only within my phone, her soul contained in circuit boards and enclosed in a plastic shell, how I am supposed to care about Thoreau when all the way on the other side of the state, my friend has decided not to eat for fourteen days and there is nothing I can do to stop her. I don’t tell them that I half-expect to be the one who will faint from hunger in the middle of class before the two weeks are up if I don’t somehow talk her out of it. The worry keeps me from memorizing my speech, and yet I can recall exactly what she ate on December second: a single candy cane. Is it any wonder that I expect my frame to be skeletal, my stomach flat to the point of hollowness, my lunch box still full at the end of every day?

It seems unfair, even when she’s in the thick of it, for me to claim I feel anything at all. My wrists are empty, my stomach full, my brain free from the lies of mental illness. I know I cannot tell a teacher, “I can’t do this presentation because my friend is depressed.” Besides, I fear they’ll tell me that I’m wrong, that I should just leave it all to the professionals. They don’t know that I emailed her school counselor and still, when she stopped eating completely not once, but twice, it was me who snapped her out of it the first time and me who led our friend to give the warning that saved her the second time, even though her counselor had been pulling her from class for a period every day. The professionals cannot text her at midnight to keep away the doubts that crop up while everyone else is sleeping. So I learned how to fight with her, to throw every thought onto my keyboard in the hope that just one will click. The words to an anti-suicide speech are typed at the slightest alarming message, before I can even think about what to say. I have already adapted so much that it seems a miracle that my outside does not match my inside, that my figure has not lost its padding to the jaws of unsatiated hunger, that I can wear short sleeves without the fear of exposing white “cat scratches,” and that after everything, the only way we match is the bags under our eyes. It only seems fair that if I feel her anguish, I should carry her wounds.

After a month, her mother sends her to the hospital for evaluation.  There will be no more scars made with scissors, no more delayed meals, no more early morning conversations. Those are not allowed in psych wards. Meanwhile, I remain at home, in school, trapped in my own sort of isolation. A part of me enters the hospital with her as her wrists heal and her hunger dissipates; the rest lingers in honors classes, pretends that everything is all right. I hide how I’m afraid of her coming back with nothing fixed. I resist the urge to ask everyone fretting about their grades if they’ve ever thought about what it’s like to have real problems. I have to right to shout at them. After all, I am safe. I eat regularly. I have no lines on my wrists. But if that’s true, then how come in my worried haze, I can see the scars residing on my arms, bright and clear, marking me forever? Why am I, too, overcome with fear at being removed from everything I care about until some doctor deems me stable? How come, every time I look in the mirror, I am able to count my ribs?

 

Margaret Madole is a 16-year-old sophomore from Connecticut who refuses to be reduced to a collection of nouns in a bio. Other people have described her as a writer, actress, dancer, violist, and girl scout. She prefers adjectives like eclectic, loud, enthusiastic, nerdy, and creative.

Visual Art by Öykü Seran Harman

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Rivers in Her Hands

My most vivid memories of my mother are the thick, blue veins in her hands. They lurk beneath the surface of her thin skin, distant reminders of decades of age. I like to run my fingers over them, imagining that each line is a river encased in the pores of her skin.

Every evening, she raises me up to her worn chair, sits me in her lap, and runs her fingers through my hair as I trace the rivers in her hands.

“You can be anything you want to be,” she tells me.

“Really?” I always ask, even if I already know the answer.

“Yes.” My mother smiles a worn, tired smile, and I watch the earth crumble and crack around her eyes and mouth, the wrinkles etching her skin like moving plates.

I didn’t realize what she meant until I entered primary school, when talk of immigration and foreign countries began. During those times, I thought about my mother, and began to understand why she sat me down in her leather armchair every night after dinner and held me in her lap, whispering words of encouragement into my ear.

My mother, who never got the chance to be whatever she wanted to be.

My mother, who came to America in hopes that an unborn me would have a better future.

My mother, who never got the chance to go to school the same way I do.

But my mother is brave, resilient. She tells me how hard it was to learn English, how she spent years poring over textbooks, memorizing when to use “-ed” for past tense and when to change the word altogether. She tells me how hard it was when she first came to America, the strange looks and mocking from strangers with perfectly-enunciated English.

I can’t imagine my mother, who has rivers in her hands and the earth in her smile and the sunlight in her eyes, ever struggling with anything. It makes me feel lucky to have been born here—to speak English fluently.

When I came home from school crying after my classmates mocked my strange-smelling lunch, the shape of my eyes, the color of my skin, she was there for me. She picked me up, placed me on her lap, and sunk into the leather chair, whispering words of her home. She described Chinese countrysides and the family I had in a country across the world, and suddenly, I didn’t feel so bad about my heritage.

As I grew up, I learned not to cry about the teasing and smiled instead. Now that I’m too old for her lap, I sit across from my mother in a chair of my very own. Of course, she keeps her old, leather one; even when it sheds black flakes onto the carpet, neither of us can bring ourselves to get rid of it. We still sit across from one another in the evenings, but I miss the days when I fit in her lap. She still tells me stories of her beginnings in America, detailing her struggles, and how, to this day, she still hasn’t mastered English.

I kiss her cheek. “Your English is perfect,” I say. She smiles and reaches forward for my hand. I place mine atop hers and see myself in her eyes, in the bridge of her nose, in her lips.

I am a spitting image of my mother, and I hope that, when I grow up, I’ll be as selfless and noble as she is, too. Because my mother has rivers in her hands, and the power to change the lives of people who come after her.

Even when these rivers dry up and the earth shatters, I’ll always be grateful for the chance my mother has given me.

 

 

Viviana Wei is a 16-year old girl living in Cooper City, Florida. She goes to American Heritage in Plantation and enjoys writing and drawing. As a first generation Chinese-American, she speaks both Mandarin Chinese and English; she is eager to share her Chinese roots through her writing.

Visual Art by Rudy Falagan

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Tilt

This summer Mummy, Daddy, Bunny and I are going to visit Grandmammy in her house by the sea. We don’t visit Grandmammy often. Mummy says it’s because she lives so far away.

When we visit Mummy lets me and Bunny play at the edge of the water near Grandmammy’s house. Bunny gets all fat and bloated and then Mummy has to put him out to dry. Mummy says best friends can’t be stuffed toys but I know she’s wrong because Bunny is mine. He always wants to play the games I think of and he never laughs at me like the boys in school.

The last time we visited Grandmammy I was only in kindergarten. Grandmammy told me she’d buy me a chocolate sprinkle cone if I tell Daddy that I want Grandmammy to live with us. Mummy was angry when she found out. I didn’t get ice cream and we came back three days early.

I like looking out of the window to see the big trees at the side of the road. There are only small trees where we live. Mummy points out pretty birds and a little monkey sitting on a rock. The monkey acts very funnily, jumping about and scratching itself. I yell out, “Mummy, it’s touching its bum!”

Mummy says the monkey is acting in this Shameful Way because it isn’t intelligent like me. I look away quickly from the monkey which doesn’t know not to show its Private Parts in front of others.

We finally reach Grandmammy’s house. When I enter Grandmammy smiles and says, “Who is this handsome young boy?” I laugh and run to the other room to sit on the bed and watch Scooby Doo while Daddy and Mummy talk to Grandmammy.

During dinner, Grandmammy puts rice on my plate and says, “Such a shame that he has to grow up an only child.”

Daddy says, “We’re a happy family of three.” I feed Bunny some of my rice.

“Those who cannot do better must be…” Then Daddy is yelling at Grandmammy and Grandmammy is yelling back. Mummy is

trying to get Daddy to sit back down. Bunny falls off his seat.

Daddy goes straight to bed without clearing his plate. I ask Mummy if Daddy wants to play I Spy but she says no, not right now. Grandmammy says she can play with me, but I say no, thank you and sit with Mummy and colour my notebook.

On the last day of our visit, I make sandcastles till Mummy says it’s time to pack. I run in, put my clothes in my blue sailor backpack, and try to run out but Mummy stops me. I have to wait there while she and Daddy carry our bags to the car.

I sit on Grandmammy’s blue sofa and swing my legs. Grandmammy keeps strange things on the side tables – little stones from a riverbank, a mood lamp, a prayer wheel from Tibet. Grandmammy doesn’t have any toys or comics.

Bunny and I are playing cross and noughts with my red jumbo crayon when Grandmammy comes into the room. She starts taking out jars and boxes and putting them noisily on the table. Mummy says it isn’t polite to make so much noise but I don’t say this to Grandmammy because I don’t want her to feel bad.

I know I have to listen to Grandmammy because she’s older than me. I stop and make more crosses.

“You’re acting like a cat in heat,” Grandmammy says in an odd voice. She’s looking at me strangely. I look down at my notebook paper. I wish Grandmammy would go back to moving the jars. I wish Mummy would come back into the room.

I try to focus on my notebook. But Bunny falls off the sofa and I’m trying to win the game and I’m used to shaking my leg when I sit.

Grandmammy is yelling at me now. “Stop it! Shaking your legs means you want sex. Is that what you want?”

I stop doing everything at once.

I feel like when Vicky from class hit me on the head and I couldn’t breathe or think, I just waited silently for Mummy to come get me. My eyes are burning. I nod like a puppet.

Grandmammy said the s-word.

The Dirty and Wrong Thing you shouldn’t say.

The Secret Thing grown-ups do in movies after they take off their clothes, even though you should never show anyone your Private Parts.

The Very Shameful Thing you cannot say.

The Chinese paintings on Grandmammy’s walls are tilting. It makes my head hurt. I want Mummy to come and take me away like she did after Vicky hit me. I want to go far away from Grandmammy who says these Terrible Things.

But my arms and legs aren’t working so I just sit there.

Mummy and Daddy come to take me to the car sometime. They say bye to Grandmammy. I say bye to the plant next to Grandmammy’s feet. Grandmammy says she hopes we visit again soon. I hope Daddy forgets the way to Grandmammy’s house.

The small pebbles in front of Grandmammy’s house are jumping. My Lightning McQueen sandals are tripping over them so Mummy takes my hand. My eyes are open too wide and I look at the dancing pebbles so Mummy doesn’t notice and make me repeat the Bad Thing Grandmammy said.

In the car I open the window and look out. Mummy asks me if I want to sing a song. She asks if I want to play I Spy. I pretend to sleep and she stops asking.

I feel like I’ve fallen in a very muddy and smelly puddle. I don’t touch Mummy’s hand when she gives me a sandwich so the dirt won’t get on her too. When we get out of the car to go home I see the sandwich fallen on the floor.

Only at night, when I’m pouring shower gel and water into my ears do I realise that I left Bunny behind.

Ashira Shirali is a high school student from Gurgaon, India. She loves books, music, good food and the colour blue. Her work has been published in Teen Ink and Moledro Magazine.

Visual Art by Paulina Otero

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