Two basketball courts, double rims. Stout water tower down the slope. Ball would bounce against the barbed wire on a miss, if it bounced enough. Yeah, here is good. I remember. And she’s been talking shit for weeks. That H.O.R.S.E. wouldn’t end my way, and she’s a shooter (she’s not). Two hand release, pushing off one leg, a half jump, land on one leg. Arched back. Line drives off the front rim, backboard, fence. It’s summer and sticky heat hangs from our shoulders, our fingertips, our lips. Humidity pulls my body and her body down into the concrete court, dragging into tree roots and acorns and scraggled grass, into the dirt of the earth. I want to eat your lips and swallow you whole and “you’re too far apart, standing all the way over there” “I’m right here.” “It’s too far.” She bricks another and laughs. Throws her arms up, pushes Spalding away, loose crop top rises up the sternum, to her collar bone. Flounces down quick, no breeze to hold it. Now I’m shirtless. Her replacement too long and worn. Heat smothering air, sunlight catching dust suspended on the court, lighting the Carolina pines, like a wall between us and everything else. We run and hide in the halflight. And if I knew then, what I knew later, I’d stay on that court forever. Puddle and melt into the cooked concrete, our arms around each other.
The Young Woman
Upstairs, a simple laborer complains of an infection. At reception, a new widow seeks relief from a nagging cough. In the middle of it all, the Young Woman awaits the News. Under the fluorescent half-light, the Young Woman melts like snow to pissing dogs.
The Young Woman arrives in a near-hyperthermic state. Beeps and clicks perform their own private marching song. Countless people speak across each other. Quickly through the gallery of lights, that off-white glaze, fading to black on rhythm. Light arrives, light departs, dark arrives, bleeding hearts. Sharp pins wince—two, three, four. Inside of eyes, umbrellas to storms. The Young Woman thinks of “It’s a Small World,” and about the season passes to Disney she will probably never use again.
The attendings surrounding her speak of numbers and they wonder about many things; the Young Woman wonders only about the News.
She wonders about the Bearer, about how he will present the News, the worry that he might not shoot her straight. He might attempt to cajole the Young Woman—to wrap the News inside semantics and history and justifications. If he does this, he will speak in the language of why. He will try to account for everything: each stray hair in the brush, every face-down phone, every early bedtime. All of this will feel fatally important to the Bearer: the details as penance, the accuracy of the brushstroke as a substitute for the evil in the frame. All of it will only further excruciate the Young Woman. Excruciating, at first, in the expected way. The Bearer’s craving for immediate salvation, the frantic apologia, the endless self-pity like a one-man special victims’ unit. It will all come together; to humiliate, to discolor, to crumble the Young Woman’s spine like dry cracker—to slice through flesh too surprised to know how to bleed.
Excruciating, too, because she needs to hear it. The Bearer’s excuses, however malignant and self-serving, will strike directly at the millions of insecurities and anxieties that have completely overtaken the Young Woman in the wake of all of this. The curiously self-destructive member of her mental family is burned for confirmation. Whether she likes it or not, the relationship between the Young Woman and the Bearer has lent to a peacock’s frock of irrational emotions—the kind that would oblige any warm-blooded creature to sit there and take the beating, licking the wounds only after the blood has taken a moment to clot, knowing, by which they are born to feel, that there can be no return to real life until every last bit of stuffing has been ripped out of them.
If and when the Bearer arrives with the News, the Young Woman wonders about the way that the Bearer will lie. His lies might be short and clerical: It happened on this night, we met at this place, I don’t know what came over me, it will never happen again. In this story, each detail will be its own weighted formality, each will serve the plot, each more divorced than the previous.
Or perhaps his lies will be ornamental like fables, meant to coax the Young Woman, however briefly, into the Bearer’s shoes: It was a dark and stormy night, my new blood pressure medication had begun acting up, I had momentarily entered a state of paranoid delusion. Whatever the story, it will, of course, also be complete fiction, but a different sort of unhappy fiction, since this will be the one the Bearer actually believes, the one he has rehearsed, and the one he has come to love. It will all be invented, nonetheless. Even if it sparkles as genuine, even if the Bearer might hold deeply to its authenticity, the Bearer has no capacity for truth. The Young Woman has seen this before. This trait was, at first, endearing—the Bearer does well at parties, the Bearer gets on with parents, the Bearer dances slowly in burning rooms, etc. But now this charm is something else, in the aftermath of something serious, in a world where people cry and things matter. Now, only the rotting and decomposed roadkill on the shoulder of the major freeway. Whether the Bearer is in his current haze of crocodile medications and performative self-discovery, or in some new state of complete and total dissociation from reality, it will all be the same, still jamming like thumbs through blanched eyeballs.
The Young Woman is wrapped in layers of blankets and warming structures. Her body is littered with treatments and therapeutics. Some numbers on the screen glare red, others sit still in green and blue. The well-educated men and women treat themselves to her body until the numbers change and a new crowd wanders in. The entourage talk, smooth but cold to the touch, think hand-carved iced at whiskey hour; the words to them come effortlessly. The leading man in the room makes the same tired joke about a smoke break after all of this. He makes this joke to every new person he sees.
The Young Woman cannot shake the grumbling thought that her receipt of the News will reflect as much on her as on the Bearer. The antagonist clings to a script, there are only so many ways to play the part. This gives the Bearer something of an advantage. There is not much for him to do but apologize, to trim the foliage at its edges. But for the weeds, there are choices: She might hurl insults. She could attempt to empathize. She could cut the Bearer off before he’s even given the stage. She wonders if there is such a thing as nobility in the world of victimhood.
She saw a girl once in a commercial. A thirteen-year-old named Dorothy, who sits in the oncology wing of Mt. Sinai, having has her video taken for fundraisers. You have to wonder about this girl. Does she like 80’s movies? The Breakfast Club? Sixteen Candles? Ferris Bueller? The real kitschy ones. The big homecoming dance, the male protagonist is out with the hottest girl in school, the tomboy girl-next-door walks through the door with ‘Only You’ by Yazoo playing in the background. Those kids are coming of age in the library and Dorothy watches her doctors whisper poorly about months and years remaining.
Does Dorothy empathize with the cancer? Does she hope that the cancer will one day get its act together? Does she hope for the cancer to learn to tell the truth, for the cancer to go to therapy and really try this time? Even if the cancer could become capable of love and romance with somebody else’s body, doesn’t Dorothy know that she could never trust the cancer again? Dorothy might feel some pull towards history, wondering about the days when the cancer wasn’t so cancerous. There was a day when stage three leukemia was just Dorothy’s nose abruptly bleeding into her middle school boyfriend’s mouth. These were the days when the Young Woman dealt with the cancer’s bad PCP trip—clearing the guests from the apartment, rubbing his hair for 5 straight hours, taking him in and out of the bathtub as he continued to scream about how he couldn’t feel anything but also couldn’t tolerate the constant tingling across his skin. These also included the days when the cancer, instead of piggish obscenities during sex, would grab the Young Woman’s hair and tell her how badly she had ruined him, how he’d kill himself if she left him, how he’d never be able to fuck anybody else again. The Young Woman would latch to him like a spider monkey, wondering if somewhere deep inside she might feel the same.
The Young Woman lies like a snow angel as the PA screams code blue. The capable bodies scamper and beg one another for tools and needles and paddles. A doctor barks twice for a tube and the machines kick and scream on behalf of the Young Woman. The whole room makes discordant sounds like black reapers with scraping steel on stones. It all proves unintelligible.
In another room, unrelatedly, a kindly nurse with a face like oatmeal is on her lunch break. Like every day, the nurse sits haggardly at the feet of a coma patient. She swallows three bites of a cafeteria panini and starts to think aloud.
“From what I heard, there was always some tension. But where isn’t there? Are there perfect families out there? I haven’t seen them. Most girls start acting up at thirteen, so I guess they got two or three more years out of her. But you know how girls can get.
The first time I heard anything was the night with the house party. Amy brought a few friends over. Maybe five, maybe six, apparently, they find themselves in the liquor cabinet. Cheryl was always something of a wino so I’m not surprised it was stocked. But I guess they got pretty rowdy, real rowdy I suppose, since a few of the other neighbors called it in. Not me though. I know how kids can get. You have to let them live a little bit. But this was different, you know? These girls had a little too much fun. I heard that when the police walked in, Cheryl was holding some poor boy’s face above the toilet. His hair was in the toilet water. Disgusting. And then, later that night, even after the cops leave, one of the girlfriends is in Amy’s bed with the skinny boy who bags groceries at Pathmark. And would you believe they broke the bed?! They don’t teach you what to do in a situation like that. They do not come with a manual; I’ll tell you that.
But it all really turned to shit when He came home that night. He wasn’t happy of course. You know how men can get. But that was the first time it got messy like that, from what I can remember. You could hear it down the block. He was doing this ‘I’m not your father but I will raise you like one’ routine. But Cheryl said it was something else that time, like something had really made Him afraid. Like Amy’s sitting on the split wooden frame on the ground and He’s in the doorway giving her everything He’s got. He’s going on about everything. He’s going on about the rabble in this town, how she’s a whore here, how she’s a slut there—all of that. Amy’s crying something serious, but He isn’t fazed the slightest bit—which is when she knew something was off.
After that, I started to hear something here or something there. I ran into Lucy at the Bloomfield Bakery, and she told me that Amy got her belly button pierced on a weekend and that He put a hammer through a television. Another day she found a pack of cigarettes in His pillowcase, and would you believe they didn’t speak for weeks? Cheryl tells me He would lay in bed at night, muttering to Himself, “to get respect you got to give respect.” She kept trying to tell Him. ‘She’s 15, you’re an adult, this isn’t a level playing field.’ Nothing got through to Him. You know how men can get.
It was maybe 2 or 3 months after that when the call came in. Somewhere around Easter or the sort, I think it was the Thursday before. They find her wrapped up in a tent bag upstate. And, to make it worse, they found her wrists bleeding from the copper wire she’d been tied up with. A damn shame, isn’t it? But you know how men can get. By Friday they get Him at a truck stop buying cigarettes. Maybe it was Saturday? All I know is by Sunday service He’s locked up. Not much news coverage, which was surprising. It was kind of a thrill when they did come, marching on down the street with their big cameras and all that. I felt like I was on the Real Housewives or something, you know? That next week we all took turns making food for Cheryl. What a sin, to have to cook and clean and grieve. I came over that first Monday with a pulled pork. When I showed up on Thursday with the lemon chicken, I saw that Diane had brought over a half-tray of lasagna on Tuesday. Can you believe that? Half of a lasagna. She couldn’t be bothered to make the whole thing? She’s just lost a daughter for Christ’s sake. Does it get any more tone-deaf than that? But what can you do? You know how women can get.”
Earlier, the Young Woman was playing with language. Specifically, she was working with a phrase. “I just need to know.” That was the phrase. She conjured this phrase for if the Bearer danced around the important questions. The phrase she coined. “I just need to know.” That’s what she would tell him. She would cut him off, mid-ramble or mid-soliloquy, and she would say, “please, I just need to know.”
That was the worst part. This imagined dialogue. That it seemed so normal when she considered it. Nothing about it seemed strange. Maybe it was an attempt to salvage the Bearer’s feelings, maybe, instead the last hanging speck of social decorum, but this felt like a pedestrian thing to say. But how deranged is that? How laughable a self-betrayal, to think that it was her job to pull all this information out of him? That she had to earn his admission of guilt? That she should not only expect but delight in his finally telling the truth. That the bar is so cosmically low that him saying “yes, it’s true, I did sleep with her,” is somehow a point in his column?
The Young Woman considers how this plays out in television. It is always in one of two ways. The first way is the classical way. The man has fallen victim to that dastardly bug of adultery and the woman he claimed to love is rendered a helpless shell of her former self. The shots write themselves: tissues pile up in the bed she cries in, her silence erodes once-friendly lunch outings, she breaks down crying in the middle of a blind date with an innocently adorable lawyer from the West Village. The woman on-screen is extinguished; some man somewhere has filled some subconscious fantasy or another. Somebody wins an award for this depiction.
The second version is the strong woman. This has quickly become the favorite of the new-age Lifetime executive. This is the feminist adaptation on the age-old classic. The strong woman leaves at the first sign of infidelity. She immediately and unflinchingly drops all attachment to the man who tried to destroy her. She goes on to sell a company for a billion dollars and the Golden Girls demographic sit in the theatre and weep with joy at the bravery and triumph on the screen.
But, as it is with everything, the Young Woman feels both. And of course, with the same unfairness that has encompassed it all, the Young Woman feels the intense inability to feel either of these emotions comfortably, with the thought that the embrace of one completely undermines the other. To be strong is to betray her true feelings and to be vulnerable strikes a blow to the resilience she knows exists inside of her. This leaves the Young Woman with no legitimate salvation, only left to swallow each spoonful of tar until the question itself subsides. But for now, every happy memory she can conjure is collapsed. Every first kiss becomes shards of glass and nostalgia for apple cider is to death like sand in her mouth.
All of this culminates in the ultimate metaphor, which is the waiting. This is the Young Woman in her hospital bed, arriving from surgery, grateful to hear that it is only bones and a lung that have collapsed. This is the Young Woman with her eyes transfixed on nothing but the framed photo of the New York City skyline at the foot of the bed, old enough to see the Twin Towers standing proudly. This is the Young Woman trying to watch television, but every so often, like a nail in a tire, pierced by the reminders of the upcoming news and its disgusting bearer. This is knowing the embarrassment of knowing she let the butcher have his way with her skin, her nerve endings grated like splintered wood. This is to feel as though somebody has attached a fishing hook to her belly button and was attempting to pull her stomach out through her back. This is every trace of trust flattened and seared like cheap steaks. This is tallying the minutes and the hours. This is the haggard nurse stopping on the way home for 40 Marlboros and a Powerball ticket. This is knowing that the phone will one day finally ring. That it will sound from the table next to the bed and that the Young Woman leap to the beeping, hoping only to love and to be loved back.
Pack of 20
The 6 AM cigarette means a few things.
First that my insomnia is back. Which means the sunrises are also back. This morning the softest pink clouds pass through the small gap between two tall buildings. Tinged with orange, blending at the edges like a creamsicle’s top and white ice cream bottom.
Second that I am addicted to cigarettes, that first burn, when you’re staring down the thin white barrel, and next thing you know the paper is lit and the tobacco is lit. The last thing I was addicted to was Korean dramas.
Third that Tristan is on my mind. He only smoked spirits, light blue, tobacco pouch in his back pocket always so European. He’s the one who got me hooked, the culprit in this strange accidental reality of mine.
The 8 AM cigarette means one thing.
Mom wants to talk. She’s on another island and only has service a few hours in the morning and at night. She likes to ask me questions, hear about my life, how I spend my time, what I’m thinking about. She’s the best listener. I could yap to Maile about nothing eternally, if only to hear her murmurs of contemplation and expressions of calm attention. Today we talked about the months I spent at a suicide prevention camp. She reminds me that I’m not there anymore, that I needed to be there. It’s no use describing that highly specific feeling of having a burly man monitoring you 15 while you relieve yourself, a 23-year-old college drop-out banished from house and home for three months. But clearly I’m not still bitter.
The 2:30 PM cigarette means a few things.
I’ve woken up from a nap, disoriented, body craving. There will be a 2:36 cigarette.
It is the hottest part of the day and I am wearing a pair of cheetah-print biker shorts from Old Navy, lime slides and yellow nail polish, a Bernie Sanders t-shirt. Sitting on the limestone wall outside my apartment, passersby cross to the other side of the street to avoid my smoke. I imagine they do so because I am too intimidating, that scowl and pronounced pout.
Mom’s coming over for dinner. I’ve prepared a simple selection of pupus, always preferring to snack on an array of small things. Plus then it feels a bit like a party? Not that Maile doesn’t always bring the party energy, because she does.
The 8:00 PM cigarette means something new.
Mom and I are in my spot sharing a light blue spirt. She leans back with casual elegance, reminding me she was young once. We speak of everything. Her affair, her businesses, her fears that life is passing too quickly. The stooge gets smaller and smaller as our intimacy grows, smoke gathering thick around us in clouds not unlike the mental fog that accompanies lighting up. At least for me, part of the joy of the cigarette is the simultaneous clarity and inevitable dissolution. We dissolve together into a shared night, laughing and crying and resolutely proclaiming this is not how we want to live.
My mother tells me I have to eat breakfast or else the stomach acid will start to eat at me. Three generations of women avoiding breakfast— I remember my grandmother who wouldn’t eat from the time she woke each sunrise til late noon, up until the cancer spread through her stomach. She went to the hospital, but she’s dead now. My mother doesn’t talk about her much, only mentioning her vaguely as a threat of what happens to daughters who have to survive their mother at 18. A lesson learned of girls who don’t eat breakfast. But I can’t trust her. I never see her eat breakfast. She used to— a banh mi after school, cheesy pasta before skating lessons. Back when we ate together, almost happily, if not for the shared shame in our eyes after reaching for seconds. It is difficult not to think about my mother on her deathbed. Swept up in the white sheets with her sunshine yellow skin. I sit outside her hospital room and my head is in my hands. I wonder how I will react when she dies, as I press a hand into the emptiness of my rib cage, searching for a spine. There’s only gas there, from sucking in my stomach all the time.
After I Left Home
My mother is up to her elbows in dishwater and she is not pleased. She checks the oven timer over her shoulder and sighs. Twenty minutes until she can relax, soak her feet in bathwater with only her ox red underwear on. She wonders if her daughter would call today. Perhaps the call will arrive when she is in the bath. Damp and bloodied Band-Aids pile up in one of her kitchen apron’s wrinkled pockets. The vegetables are sliced, but at what cost? Her fingernails are scratched, her hands cut-littered, the pain pinching her nerves under the burn of the dish soap. The scars on the back of her hands are deep and dark, like little ants dotting cracked but clear sidewalks. The knife is not her friend today, or any day. The grease of lamb from the oven coats her face in oil and the smell makes her sick. She swats the air. She hates cooking. She hates eating. She hopes that today, in twenty minutes, her daughter would call. I imagine my mother like this, cooking a dish that only my brother and father will eat, washing dishes, in pain, waiting— and call.
The Negro Paints a Sunset
After Schuyler, After Hughes All my sunsets black: All my sunsets black as the trees and the birds and the flowers and all the other things my black eyes see. I paint a bird onto the canvas, and it is the blackest bird there is, black because I say it’s black, black because it’s free, black as blues & jazz & liquor stores & spirituals & sunsets. My sunsets black as the people who praise them. Sunsets that ushered the day-long cookouts into the laughter-saturated dark. Sunsets that told me to get inside before my mother snatched my black behind. Sunsets that warn me it is better that mother snatch me than some danger of the night. Sunsets that my grandmother assures will be greeted by a better day, the black of her hands turning all golden in its dying light. All my sunsets black: Black as taxes and redlining and incarceration and the knowledge that still, still, the light will return for us. My sunsets black as the people who praise them.
Whenever I need a break from Kiosk Koffee I pad across the cramped and sticky floor, swing the bubble-letter Open to the cursive Closed, wipe my hair into a tall ponytail and go get some real coffee. It’s not that I don’t have pride in my work, I just know what I want. Regulars come to Kiosk to get on with their lives, not to revel in them. Sometimes I just want a little glitter in my piss. Walking quickly to avoid my boss’ general suspicions of the leisurely, I flip out my compact mirror from my purse (also mini) and lick my fingers to comb back my brows. It’s the quickest way to look less disappointed. I’ve been told by more than one person that I have “resting-washed-up face,” which wasn’t originally accidental.
I wouldn’t be so earnest about softening my aura except that the two new guys who work at real coffee look like god’s gift to Twilight fans. Not that I need to defend my taste in books, or guys. I just think it’s fun to pretend perky. These beautiful bastards could work anywhere they wanted in the whole wide mall. Nike. PacSun. Abercrombie. But they chose this commission-free Moby-Dick monopoly. I tell myself it’s not creepy to remain in regular need of their assistance.
I walk in and, if they’re not with a customer, the lanky boys will be busy pushing vape clouds under the counter or making Sharpie art on their skinny jeans. I’ve been at Kiosk for three years, ever since I graduated college and told my family I was moving back in. But the turnover here is ridiculous. Copies of the smocked and pocked-face youth rotate every few months. Apparently, this is the place for people with somewhere to move on to.
I’ve got a joke with myself for when one boy asks for my order. I say, “just my regular,” and he looks at me like I’m confusing him for the other, which, half the time, I am. The charm of it is that they’re both too lazy to follow up, so I’ll get something different each time. Whipped cream roulette. They work with stunning inaccuracy. It’s like an exhibit. I’ve got my own strategies for when I get harassed at work. It usually involves speaking only on the inhale, or in rhyme. Something disorienting enough for her (and it usually is her) to leave as soon as possible but not too rude as to be demanded the whereabouts of my manager. But these boys live like life couldn’t be less interesting. Or threatening. One time I literally made eye contact with one of them as he picked his nose while making my drink. He smiled and nodded what’s up. Christ, I thought. To be that free.
I grab my green-and-white cardboard and cover the logo with a sleeve. I leave some change for their services. “You boys keep me humble,” I say on my way out. And I mean it. Next I take the long way back around the block of shops to Kiosk. I love the way carrying the cup around makes me feel like I look like I have somewhere to be. I’m all, hey world, it’s me, but to-go. If I ever make a stop, it’s right inside Victoria’s Secret where the sale rack is. I usually just pick some tiny things up and put them down again but I’m always on the lookout for the underwear that’s going to turn my life around.
Once, I was feeling bold and took thirteen pairs into the dressing room, all balled in my fists under a silk black robe. I put on the robe, walked out to look in the mirror, made sure one of the employees saw me self-admiring, and then ducked back into the stall. I gave the robe back to the chick who looked closest to my age and told her thank you, but the material just didn’t look like it would last. I remember how she didn’t laugh, just pressed her lips and grabbed it back and spun away, but all the better that she didn’t watch me walk out of there, shuffling slightly with all thirteen thongs layered on top of each other under my jean skirt. That night after I got home I took all the tags off and tried on each of them individually. I wondered why none of them made me feel pretty. It’s because they’re stolen, I decided. My self-improvement panties would be a purchase, well-earned.
The worst part of this routine? I don’t even drink coffee. The sugar makes me break out. That’s right. I spend half of an hour’s wages worth in cash to be ignored by boys so tall I confuse them for handsome. They’re too boring to flirt back, but it works. I’m both their most and least valued customer.
These non-exchanges rile me up, so I try to make my walk back to work as soothing as possible. The mall is what I once would’ve called my happy place. Now it’s just my place. But it doesn’t matter if I’m happy or not because the mall takes care of me either way. Just like every kid who was ever breastfed in the mall, linoleum and fluorescents give me a stabilizing reverence. Every time I smell the enriched cinnamon yeast of a Wetzel’s pretzel I flashback to a pietà of my mother, swaddling my enormous howling head, my tantrum an ode to the forbidden Fruity Pebble special. Around five I was old enough to reach the coins forgotten in the fountains. I grew to crave the rush that came from first from hiding quarters from my mother and again from the glistening sugar glaze, which grew, as religious experiences often do, into a mild addiction. The bread of Wetzel’s, broken for me. I’ve come to recognize this time as something of a cocooning. Desire’s first impression, my mother always said, smooths its imperfections.
Now and again I’ll forgive myself for a bad skin day and take the escalator down to grab one last pretzel. If I have time, or my boss is visibly hungover, I’ll slow down on my ride back up and make a point of noticing things. Like the thin lines of afternoon light cast down from the domed skylights, or the way the giant fake plants draw any wanderers inadvertently to them. Some people think of the mall as man’s opposition to nature. But it’s actually the place we’ve built that most closely mimics it. The lights rise and fall with the same dedication to daylight as wildflowers. The displays listen to the turning of the earth, shedding and layering fads like leopards do fur. I would even say the mall defines the seasons, if not definitively ushers them in. Malls are neighborhoods. Colonies. Hives. In them we find ornamentation to set ourselves apart while growing more similar. There’s an ebb and flow here. If I close my eyes I could convince myself it’s a tide.
Life cycles in the mall. With property values what they are, even the big chains change location with Darwinian predictability. It’s sell or be sold. People swarm to celebrate brick-and-mortar births. And I’ve seen tears shed for stores passed. Kiosk Koffee, strangely, is the one constant. Rumor has it the mall manager’s husband had an affair with the guy who opened it back in the 80s. They’ve “been in business” together ever since.
I clutch and sniff at my lukewarm cup, finally back behind the Kiosk counter. I don’t flip back the sign. Instead, I trace the grain on the plastic wood counter, summoning the legacy of love, lust, survival, whatever has managed to keep it here. I wonder if my manager would put me on health and dental in exchange for short poems and more smiling. I chuck my coffee down the tiny silver sink.
Drive-In Opera, Fort Mason
When I returned to Australia this time, in one of those tense restless moments in which I’d stretched my arms out and felt as though my palms were pressed hard against the walls, clunky in the corners, enclosed, I walked to the local cemetery.
And I cried.
It surprised me, too — the cemetery is an old one, and in Australia, which means that I have no relatives buried there; no connection to the people beneath the soil. Most of the cemetery has long been turned into a park, and the remnant gravestones are crumbling gently in the shade. It is pretty. It is calm. A destination for casual drinking; sex; strolls.
But I’d cried. I’d taken a walk to clear my head, wandered through the long grass, admired, as a history student, the porous Sydney sandstone church, remarking to myself that only Sydney would have such anachronisms as gothic architecture built from Victorian sandstone, read the words written on the gravestones — and promptly welled with tears. The words were:
Edward Adams, born Kent, 1792, died Newtown, 1844.
Followed by his loving wife Alice, born Glasgow, 1795, died Newtown, 1852.
And so on. The pattern was a British name, a place of birth outside Australia, and the place of death: here. I recognised the place-names, minutes from where I’d grown up: Redfern, Newtown, Macdonaldtown. The abrupt richness of connection in an unexpected place — the sudden ability to reach out and touch, feel, almost physically, the lives of these people in a deeply Australian space, a deeply detached space, startled me into sentiment.
It was clear to me too that this restless walk, this heightened emotion — this period of waking up exhausted from dreams of waiting rooms and mirrors — was no more and no less than a youthful and visceral struggle against filling the same space now that I’d filled at seventeen.
My most important memories, I realised, had always been of moments outside Australia; of life before Australia; even, for a time, of life after Australia. Memories of the period now called: before being sent back. I self-diagnosed my symptoms as the trauma of being sent back to blue skies.
In short, I finally grasped that it was because I’d grown up here that I wanted to leave.
Perhaps it’s because my Chinese name labels me: like water. I was born between oceans. My name in Hebrew means migration. So, at four, I moved like the water between shores, as my parents did, as their parents did. At birth, to my right was the salt of the Mediterranean, beneath me the salt of the Red Sea. Four years later, I must have realised that if I were to follow the waterway through the Persian Gulf, down the Arabian Sea, skimming leftwards through the top of the Indian Ocean, then finally I would arrive here, next to the Pacific.
Funny, then, that my first experience of Australia was being scared of the shower. We were renting an apartment, and there was no bath. I was afraid of the downpour, of standing, gasping, beneath the deluge of water rather than being bathed in it gently below my chest.
My second recollection sees us moving into our first house. I am running and running down that long unfamiliar Sydney corridor and an unnoticed corner of a wooden cabinet looms closer and closer until bang — I’ve hit my head against its sharp point. I fall and burst into tears.
My father picks me up and says, in Hebrew,
“Oh no, Hagar, you aren’t used to it here yet, are you.”
Some oddness of the sentence must have struck me even then, made me file away the words for later perusal. Now I understand that this memory is about my father’s disorientation and not mine.
Most years we return to see family. One afternoon, at a beach café, I ask for directions to the toilets. I ask in Hebrew, the language of my father; our Biblical language of lullabies; of dirty jokes; of memory and history. The waiter looks at me for a moment — then answers in accented English. Afterwards, bemusedly wiping water off my hands, I recount.
“Do I have an accent?” I ask.
My father shrugs. “Maybe you pronounce your reishs a little softly.”
There’s something familiar about the memory — generalised, even, or boring from repetition. In my second year of college, I’d stuck my head out of my dorm room and said something to a Chinese Canadian friend. Her older brother was visiting, and they were passing on their way out to dinner. Later that night, returned, she breathlessly divulged to me, “My brother told me that he’d hallucinated you spoke to me in Mandarin!”
We laughed. I had, of course, been speaking Mandarin. I’d spoken Mandarin and Hebrew before I knew English. You can still hear my fumbling accent sometimes, concealed in my lisp. Somefing. Fank you.
When I was born, the nurses in the Jaffa hospital laughed about the blonde Chinese baby. It was an image that took a struggle of forty-eight hours to produce: a large blonde infant exiting, with difficulty, a small sweating Han mother. Back in China, during parallel visits to see my quietly aging grandmother in her empty apartment, the aunties would thrill at my fair skin; that nose; the ungainly height. It was a common event, in those warm damp Chengdu days spent helping my grandmother carry home heavy plastic market bags, for someone to stop us and ask: “Is she a foreigner?”
“Ta shi waiguoren ma?”
It’s the sound of that question, of that memory, that always rings so familiar. I could unwind for you a reel of similar moments. In Australia, it’s a scene sometimes set at the train station, sometimes at a crossroads, laced through with the familiar urban smell of warm concrete and crunchy Eucalyptus leaves and Thai lunches. In it, a woman asks me and my father, “Where are you from? Is that French?”
My father responds stiffly, “We’re from Newtown.”
I supply, “It’s Hebrew.”
The soundscape changes with the setting. In the U.S., after I’d moved there for college, it was always the irritating metallic noise of the accusation: “But your accent isn’t Australian.”
So I embrace it. I’ve learned to thrill in my difference, be excited by it, dampened when I find similarities in another. If the only label left to me is migrant, then I know to enjoy being a curio. It is, after all, branded on me by my name, like an advertisement of restlessness. I get meaning from changing contexts. Homesickness — never experienced it. There’s a special peace, a special calm, a particular looseness of the shoulders in rebuilding a new life in a new place. No connections to the people or the landscape; no longer entrapped in boxy categories, desperately struggling and wriggling my fingertips. How can I describe that as a quality of the air?
It must have been a prescience of this restlessness, then, or a building desperation, that was behind the moment at sixteen in which I’d realised that my greatest wish had become to leave Australia. It’s because life in Australia is too easy, I’d theorised. I have nothing to struggle for, nothing to light me on fire. When I reach into my web of thoughts it feels grey.
Years later, when I did leave for college in the States, I learned to say instead that there is not the burden of history pressing down on Australia’s shoulders. The loss of that heavy weight in a young and removed society makes life both easier and emptier. The rich brilliance of the denseness of bodies and stories that give life in other, older societies that particular fermented tang that drives me wild that connects me, that sparks the thrill of emotion roiling around the eyes, does not exist here. But with that loss so too is gone the heaviness, the sadness, the maddening echo of drowned voices. Hence we immigrants desire to come here: for the calm of the unwritten.
That is to say, the landscape outside my window is filtered through memories of memories. My father’s sadness. My migratory instinct inherited from generations leaving bloodshed. Once, over a bowl of pasta at the local Italian restaurant, my mother said to me suddenly: “Did you know that only one of your grandmother’s four siblings survived? He was really her cousin — adopted by her father after his own parents died.” He had survived because he’d been exiled to Tibet. My late grandfather, remembered in stories of his gentle friendliness, his hopelessness at bartering, had only had a brother. Who’d hanged himself, said my mother over the gnocchi. A heavy weight pulls down rope. The sadness of the stories comes abruptly, in moments; patches; odd, intimate moods. A twin confession from my father at dinner: “We used to sit around the radio and listen for a name we knew. Everyone did that — listen for family members. You’d send descriptions to the Bureau for Missing Relatives.” I think we were eating fish that time, or maybe tofu.
Let me restate, again: looking out my window, at the echoing gentle emptiness of sun glinting off roofs and the harbour through the gum trees in the distance and my easy, easy, easy, life, I say, “I feel like the lucky child of a turbulent 20th century.”
Though of course Australia has an ancient multitude of threads of memory, embedded into the clouds of the blue Sydney sky and the shine of its waves. But this history feels carefully, deliberately wiped from the edges of my reach. Others must feel the emptiness from this too. You can see it in the breathless panting excitement at the one blood that we are allowed to remember, Australia’s own tomb of the fallen soldier.
“I’m sorry, Hagar, but you’re white.” I was fifteen. We were sitting in the library, in our ironed little school uniforms. The allegation confused me. The sorrowful coppery Anglo face that looks down at me from beneath its curved hat in the park memorial is familiar to me as a face in a social function. Its Australia, I’d thought, was barbeques and ANZAC Day and beaches for more than my one month of determined sandy public transportation at the height of summer.
So when I was sent back, in the March of this year, when the coronavirus threatened to twine its feelers into the college room I shared so many miles away from my parents, it was to look down and see my feet stepping backwards until I was curled in a ball in my childhood room, suspended in that web of innumerable strings that had defined me and my life and my future mine. To rebuild my self here, to sit in the park next to the cemetery on an empty afternoon, was to be forced to hold up the mirror of this country to my face: to experience the horrified jolt of seeing nothing reflected back.
Though perhaps it was good to have been sent back. The difficulty of building my life from the deliberately clean slate of new places, the effort of carefully considering each brick before placing it, was slowly destroying my body. The past year made me feel sometimes as though I was gazing down into a calm deep dark emptiness that one sees in the depths of the sky or the sea at night; that if only I’d stretch out my arms and let myself fall, the emptiness would calm my overheating mind.
My horizon reduced to the few streets around my house again. I know them like my body, can feel their map in my mind, touch their lengths. The cemetery is nestled in a corner over there — right here, see, between this dimple and this freckled line. I cried, there, abruptly; a breath ago, a week ago, a half-year ago, from a moment of overwrought relief — a laugh of recognition. The looking glass in the cemetery was suddenly crowded. In the reflection were threads of stories, winding towards their end in Australia.
A final confession: my name has yet another meaning. Biblical. The exiled girl who finds an oasis.