by Yuhan Tang
The moon was a white glittering crescent, smiling at me from outside my window, as if mocking my pain.
Marina was getting better at hiding things. I’d emptied all the bottles, checked below every shelf, cushion, the cabinets, even beneath the rugs, yet still, there was no trace of what I was looking for. Worn out by the hunt, I’d resolved to make my last destination the wardrobe.
Finally, I spotted the blue bottle sandwiched between a pair of Marina’s lace G-strings. There was about half a bottle left. I brushed the hair away from my eyes and rose in slow triumph, finding my fate inside the fragile little bottle. My soul expanded and curved into a bright crescent smile.
A knock at the door disrupted my thoughts.
A little agitated, I shoved the bottle into my pocket and made to stand up. Most likely she had taken the wrong bag or noticed some stain on her dress. I hated how long her showers always were, and how she always washed my clothes the wrong way. Most of all, I hated how Marina never took her keys and would rap against my window in the early hours of the morning to be let in.
The knocking came again, this time more incessantly. I tucked the bottle safe under my pillow and launched down the hall.
As I peered through the peephole, two worlds merged into one. Until the outside finally overtook and burst through.
At first, the span of his back dominated the lenses. Then he retreated a few yards, and his face morphed into other liquid shapes. He raised his hand to knock again, and I twisted the knob, opening the door a small, cautious crack.
He pulled back, greeting me with an expression of surprise.
“Sorry I’m a bit late,” He said, his voice low and slightly breathless. “Is this Marina’s place? I’m just here to pick her up.”
He was young, a little older than me, perhaps, sporting dark shades and a navy overcoat. But what caught my eye was the watch on his wrist, glistening even in the dim light of the porch. I could imagine Marina with him.
“Marina.” I echoed.
“Yes, Marina Butterfield?” His voice was breathless and low.
He took off his shades, and finally, I recognized his face. I recognized those eyes from the magazine that was now a heap of ashes in the bin. I had scorched off Marina’s face with a lighter in each photograph, and he was in most of them.
“Oh,” He brushed the side of his hair back with a hand. “Maybe next time then.”
I caught a glimmer of disappointment in his eyes, as he shook the umbrella in his hand, ready to take off again.
“Wait!” I called to his retreating figure. He turned back expectantly.
“You’ve come all the way. I’m sure Marina wouldn’t want me to just send you away like this.”
He stood there, waiting for me to go on.
I offered him a small smile, “How about a coffee? There’s this place I know.”
Our house was located on a thoroughfare, and in the evenings, there was the constant siren of ambulances and police cars, trying desperately to cram through the traffic. I always found the undulating howl heart-rending and sad, like a miserable singer, belting out in her livid, broken voice.
The house next to us looked more like a villa, and had these beautiful, long Japanese lanterns framing their balcony. The evening I first caught sight of them, I thought of how mother would’ve liked those lights. She always complained about how drab our house was, and how much she didn’t like the gray paint job that Dad had done over our porch.
Mom did come home once— a month or so after she left. She was seated on my bed in the dark, clutching a night bag to her chest, my window open from where she had climbed in.
When I entered, she was afraid to look at me, or maybe she refused to. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking, with her arms crossed in front of her chest.
“Does dad know you’re here?” I said.
No response. So I sighed and started to dig out my wallet, and only then, did she glance up at me.
“I don’t want your goddamn pity! Am I not allowed to be here anymore?” Her speech was slurred from all the drinking, “Am I not your mother? How dare you, out of all people, treat me like this.”
Her voice started to rise into a shout. Then, she halted, looking past me.
I followed her gaze. Marina stood there in the doorway, looking as if she’d seen a ghost. They stared at each other for a while. Then Marina turned to me, and there was malice in her voice.
“Did you let her in?”
They say that when you miss someone, they tend to materialize, anytime, anywhere. Right now, my mother’s face sat between the lemon tart on my plate and the foamy dip in the coffee. I willed myself to focus on the man before me and watched her image dissipate into the liquid out of the corner of my eye.
“Is it alright if I smoke?” He was asking the waitress at the bar. She had been eyeing him for a while now and gave him a flustered nod. Wearily, I eyed the sign plastered to the wall: No smoking allowed.
“Would you like one?” He sat down beside me, producing a cigarette.
“Thanks.” I took it from his hand and leaned forward for him to light it.
At first, I felt fine, but when I inhaled more deeply, it began to burn. I fought hard at the cough rising in my throat.
He smiled, as if he knew, and plucked the cigarette from my hands. Then he pushed his coffee towards me. The foamy dip swayed in the cup.
“It takes a while, but your body gets used to the feeling.” He took one last drag before stubbing it out in his drink, “It used to sear my lungs. But now, I don’t feel it at all.”
We didn’t leave the cafe until the rain stopped. Outside, the streets were enveloped in city smoke. I glanced back at the familiar entrance. A lonely mist shrouded the sign to the cafe, making it impossible to make out the words from a distance.
On the sidewalk, two birds were fighting hungrily over a puddle of water, for the meagre remains of a rain-soaked sandwich. There was no mercy in their dark, beady eyes.
I stood at the bus stop, wind blowing through my blouse. I could still hear Mom and Marina even all this way from the house.
I began to lose track of time as I sat there, waiting and listening to music. Finally, I boarded an empty bus. The lonely vehicle emanated a sense of abandon. Without its carriage of people, it almost seemed lost as it zoomed around the city, wild and searching in the cold night.
I got off at the town center. At this hour, people were walking from their late shifts, stuffed into their long coats, heads poking through only at the top like the tip of tall blades of grass. There was something unexpectedly serene about this late hour, the moon lighting up the branches of the wild cherry trees. Those half-shadowed trees were beautiful and foreign, like unapproachable strangers. I found myself dreaming up a vision of some faraway city, glittering and exotic.
“What are you doing out here?” He called over the car’s growl. It didn’t take him long to arrive. He must have been somewhere near when I called.
“I want to go somewhere.” I said to him, “You pick the place.”
We drove with the hood down; warm summer air hiked my skirt up. Soft jazz floated lazily from the speakers, adding to the serenity of the night.
We got out near the water, and I followed him into the quiet darkness. A night mist settled around the cove, drawing a tender blanket of condensation over the bay.
The sky was empty, save for a faint few stars. He kept looking up at it, as if waiting for something to happen. We kissed on the rocks, softly at first. He tasted oddly feminine, like citrus and grape. Then he turned me over and started kissing in a trail down my back. I was overwhelmed, but I thought it was just nerves. Until he called out Marina’s name.
The noises became more distinct. His chest heaved up and down against mine, and I felt his hand starting to reach beneath my clothes.
I screamed, and he flinched on top of me.
“Woah, you scared me.”
“Get off me!” My fingers found their way to his face. I was pushing, shoving him away from my body.
He rolled off to the side just as a tide crashed onto the rock.
“Fuck,” He ran a hand through his hair, then tousled it with an anxious look in his eyes. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to.”
My throat was completely dry. My head hung from the rocks and the entire world was still reversed— ocean and sky, all upside down.
“Just take me home.” I managed to say at last.
Nausea swept over me as he delivered my body from the gaping darkness into the neon lit car. I used to think those sleek luxury cars were just useless hunks of metal. But the truth now lay bare before us— I was the useless one.
Jazz was still playing in the car. But the tranquillity had been vanquished entirely. Every improvised sound was now laced with something horribly insidious. I was foolish to ever wage this war. Marina won everyone’s heart in the end. Silently, I counted the foggy headlights that sped past us. It seemed to me that those lights were getting dimmer and dimmer
“You’re only sixteen.” He was saying, “I mean, I just don’t think it’s right. You’ll find someone better, I’m sure.”
He continued to talk, but I was no longer listening. I was thinking about dying again, or perhaps it was the haunting jazz that was doing all the thinking for me.
The car slowed down before the house. I slipped out and gave the door a hard shove. Hard enough that the entire car rattled.
Dad came outside, tripping in his slippers and bathrobe. He still had his reading glasses on and a mug clutched in his hand. A wave of relief rushed over me, I wanted to run into his arms and just grieve. But then I saw his face.
“Get over here.” His voice was hard and cold. I took two steps back, teetering in the wind.
He reached down for me, pulling me up the stairs by the wrist.
“Who was that?” He demanded, “Who were you out with all night?”
I tried to rescue my arm from his angry grip. I had expected the man that was the first to pick me up from school in the rain, the one that fixed me warm midnight snacks when I woke from nightmares. Not this man with a terrible temper, and complete, cavalier disregard for my pain. When I heard my wrist snap, the hysteria bubbled up my throat.
“Let me go!” I screamed.
Dad’s eyes darkened. He let go and I stumbled back, clutching my sore arm. Then he stalked up the rest of the stairs and slammed the door. When I looked down, bright red marks had been imprinted on my forearm.
I stayed out on the porch for a while. There wasn’t anywhere else left to go. My chest felt like a hollow, excavated land. Briefly, I wondered if Mom was still in my room, or if she had been kicked out too.
On the utility poles, dark bats hung limp over the cold electric wires. What a cruel way to die, I thought. Then I didn’t think much of it anymore.
It was summer even without the sun. Pink and purple clouds printed themselves across the sky. Under the falling water, I sucked in a mouthful of cold relief. When I stepped out, my feet steamed impressions on the bathroom tiles.
Marina threw a burnt scramble of eggs onto my plate, but she must have done more than just burn it. It held the most nauseating smell of cured meat. I set it down and our eyes met. I could almost feel the tension in the air. Her face told me she knew everything.
“Marina.” I began, but she was already grabbing my plate, dumping everything into the sink. It was as though she had rehearsed it for a long time, just waiting for my words. I watched as she wiped her hands and sat down on the kitchen bench, her back turned to me.
“Can we talk?” I tried again. She didn’t respond. Her shoulders began to shake, and I sighed.
I could imagine Dad coming out from the bedroom soon, noticing this mess in the kitchen and her hunched shoulders. He would grab me and holler something like, “How dare you make your mother sad!” or “You’re the most selfish person I’ve ever met.” Like the climax of a song, his shouting would increase in volume. Then, as if holding the most painful note in suspension— the single, empty clap would land like a cymbal, hard, across my face.
But it wouldn’t just end there. Marina’s sobs were bound to ultimately join the chorus. After a bite into her revolting breakfast, he would turn and strike her too.
Before long, she’d crack, just like Mom did.
The days stretched on, with the cicadas shushing when I brushed past them in bushes, as if they wanted to avoid me too. I wasn’t the only one that felt desperate enough to burst into flame. In June, the heat consumed the forests with wildfires. People shut their windows, avoiding the smoke. When I opened them, my brother would close them again and it always ended in arguments.
I felt sad for him. For his atrocious buzzcut and his permanent slouch. He’d set out with dreams, entered a new city to find a new beginning; he had viewed the world with hope in his eyes just like I did, but now, it was all faded and had morphed into bitter resentment.
When I was ten, he’d watch Miyazaki films with me every Sunday. I could recall the way the sunlight streamed through the windows of the living room to embrace us. Now, the house was frozen. We brushed past each other, the clutter in the kitchen sink sitting between us like shadowy boulders.
“Why aren’t you eating?” Marina entered my room, arms crossed over her chest. “You need to eat something.”
“I don’t.” I replied curtly. “I’m on a diet.”
“Suzanne, you have to eat.”
“What makes you care?” I scoffed. “I know you’re fucking bulimic too.”
My brother who was passing by the hall paused by my door frame next to Marina. Both stared at me with their idiotic, blank expressions.
“Don’t speak to her that way,” He said, “She’s only trying to help.”
Everyone was siding with her now. Marina’s charms had moved even my brother, who was now another firm ally of hers. I said nothing, only turned my speaker up. The verses blasted at full volume, louder than the wailing sirens Mom and I used to have shouting matches over. It made my ears bleed.
Marina took the hint and left, and I locked the door after her.
I dropped my school bag by the kitchen bench and gulped down a glass of cold water. I was lethargic and flat from the evening heat. Dad and Marina had left me for someplace cooler. A family skiing trip, they had said, but didn’t invite me. I scooped out some ice from the fridge to place in my third glass. A cube of ice rolled out and dropped by my feet. I crushed it under my foot. Mom would have yelled at me for the mess.
I often had thoughts like this. It was like my mother’s voice was constantly in my mind, telling me what to do and what not to. Sometimes, I wish I could just forget her and the ways she taught me to feel altogether.
I feigned a smile to my reflection in the mirror, the way I’d always practised. Then I pushed my finger down to the base of my mouth, until the chunks of afternoon dessert arrived at my throat. The acid burned my throat, but the pain seemed to be from elsewhere. It felt like someone was treading on my chest over and over.
After I was done throwing up to the soundtrack of my own gurgling, I switched off the faucet and stepped out onto the balcony.
Outside, heavy clouds were settling themselves over the sky, forming a cement-coloured dusk.
I thought of my brother and how we used to watch this piece of sky together, with a sense of the future stretched wide. His clothes were gone from the closet; he didn’t even say goodbye.
My brother picked up on the second ring. He told me he was already on the plane, and that he wouldn’t have a signal soon. I had so much I wanted to say, but it was as if the words got stuck in my throat. It grew so quiet that I could hear his breathing on the other end of the line. I tried to decode it. He seemed to be saying, “Don’t worry. It will be your turn to leave soon.”
The summer just before I turned sixteen, I stole Dad’s cigarettes from his coat pocket, and smoked them on the porch. My brother had caught me on his way home from school. I watched the ashes fall as he plucked it from my hands.
“Stupid girl.” He spat at me, whilst grounding the remains with his foot, “You’re killing yourself.”
I had just stared at him, wondering if he knew that every year, millions of poor, innocent lobsters met their fate in a cooking pot. Placed in boiling water so that the helpless creature wouldn’t even know it was dying. The same was being done to me. Only slower, and more subtle.
I hung up and let my brother go. Everyone was slipping away. I was lying in the aftermath of a cyclone. A site of destruction, where all the glitz and glamour of my teenage years had been stripped away.
I pictured the rest of my years— or it could days for that matter, on a gas stove, boiling away. Death was not a matter of how. Only a matter of when.
An hour later, I was still on my bed, my eyes open, but unseeing. I saw, instead, an image of my body being pushed along a tightrope, over a dark pit that threatened to swallow me whole. Any second now, I might fall. Desperate, I cried out for help. But no one came to my aid. Everyone on the other side of the pit was out of earshot.
In the middle of the night, my phone rang again. I picked up and tried to listen through the fog.
Who is it? I heard my own faint voice echo.
“Suzy? Baby, it’s me.”
I waited for her to say more. I thought that this might still be part of the dream. My mother’s voice was soft and breathy and she kept repeating the same words over and over like she was lulling me to sleep.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
I couldn’t decide, all of a sudden, if I still resented her or not. When she stopped speaking and began to sob, I hung up.
There was a storm growing in my mind, a cyclone of thoughts and desires. I turned up my music and lay back down in bed. The speakers reverberated with such familiar old tunes that I could almost smell the smoke of the June wildfires again. No matter how old I got, the past always stuck around.
I grasped around for the blue bottle and found it still there, in the tangle of my bedsheets. The solid weight of the glass brought me great solace. In the veiled dark, I felt the pills trickle into my palm.
I stared at it for a while, then brought the fistful up to my face. Maybe I imagined it, but it seemed to be glowing in the dark. For a moment, it held the evanescent scent of carnations, of love and desire. When that was gone, I swallowed them whole.