top of page


Fall Contest Winner

CAS for Database

Catherine Xue

Sammamish, WA, USA

Skyline High School



Home used to be heat-filled afternoons, Ma and I facing each other over our ceramic bowls at the kitchen counter. Our Costco branded silverware felt almost luxurious as the sun came in through our windows, spilling over the acreage of our cabinets and condiments. Even Ma and I’s bodies were rubbed clean, all of the little crevices in our skin and nails filled with light. On these kinds of days, we’d turn our portable fan on and nurse the rice inside our bowls with our chopsticks, dipping our tongues in to test for temperature as steam whispered past our faces, furling up and around our ears.

I knew how to use chopsticks at three years old because of a YouTube tutorial Ma made me watch after she’d tried and failed to teach me herself. How did you pick that up so fast? Ma would say as she watched me pick at my food, shaking her head. I’m jealous of how fast your body learns. She would motion to herself, as if to laugh at the landscape time had created of her body, and say something like Look at me, I’m too old now while running fingers over the veins in her hands. Then she’d pack my bowl full of vegetables she promised would do a variety of good to my skin and we’d chew together underneath the yellow dining room bulb, the simple trifecta of the jaw and the molars and the throat creating the sort of placidness only routine could. Life at its very earliest was happy, and it was mostly just the two of us—Ma and I—absorbing the sugar of summer and licking the residue off our fingers.

Then years passed, receipts for laundromats and 3-packs of Charmin Ultra Soft paper towels and growing pharmacies of prescription drugs and cough syrup becoming the permanent topography of our kitchen island. Another thing I’d picked up quickly throughout the years—as my chest filled in bra cups and the years fell in increments of increasing band sizes—was an interest in the arts. Photography, specifically, was my stab at becoming. Before I could mold myself into any other identity—back when I was still just a stinging girl tongue, a common ache of sticky mascara tubes and insubstantial spaghetti straps—I’d fallen in love with pictures.

Throughout my years of high school, I captured our augmenting cabinets, swelling with new pill bottles and hospital bills, flashy evidence of Ma decomposing. I watched her body slowly fail as fall semesters became spring semesters and spring semesters became fall semesters all over again, like the never-ending revolution of a bullet cylinder or a carousel, sagging a little more of Ma’s skin every year. I watched her teeth on living room pillows and hydrangeas from our watercolored vases, complaining that her mouth was dry through my dirty Fujifilm lenses. It was surreal, watching a woman of her caliber reverse to infancy—all of it documented on my monthly rotations of disposable cameras.

I think that’s when we really started rifting—when she aged to the point of incompetence, when she could no longer afford any attention to my growing pains. I helmed all pivots in my life alone, even the sticky realization that I’d never once in my life pined for a boy and that it’d always, always, been a girl. Ma’s incapability of caring hurt like the bluntness of a knife.


The night before I left for college, I peered through a crack in the bedroom door to see if Ma was sleeping okay, and the faint hallway light revealed her, snores escaping the trap of her upper lip. I capsized in the silence, remembering our summer days and the ceramic bowls that dished not just rice but a semblance of love. The light kept raining on me and I stood, almost willing for any kind of motion to justify my own, but Ma slumbered—not a single finger twitching.

I went back to the kitchen anyway, warbling pop songs and borrowing voices from the biggest of names as I filled the gaps in my palms with soap suds, damming the silence that was always overflowing.


Moving to New York after Minnesota meant a new home and a new girlfriend. Vivienne, who I fell in love with on the subway because she pronounced my name exactly like Ma did, attended my liberal arts college. Vivienne, who spoke fluent mandarin and rolled my name off her tongue like a kiss, was my dorm mate. (Rui, pronounced with a lush ei. Not roo-ee—which feels like a nickname. Ray, she said, lifting its entirety in her mouth). I was like a teenage boy falling in love for the first time, and it was a new world in which Ma did not fill every corner of my home. Though not to say that every neon green I saw in my first years in New York didn’t remind me of the old slippers she used to lumber around in, and that every time I stopped by a bodega for water or emergency tampons, I didn’t skim the footwear aisle wondering if she needed new ones. Though not to say that every night I got drunk with Vivienne, I didn’t mistake someone else for my mother and twist my neck to look at the random woman’s back, curiously Ma-shaped, as it disappeared slowly into the skyline—an ellipsis waiting for an end.


Soon, my visits to Ma fell short to calls, which fell short to texts. Then, my once-lengthy messages reminding her to sleep before 10 PM and to eat the oranges I left on her kitchen counter fell short to glyphs—thumbs up emojis, shrugging emojis, and sometimes nothing at all if I was too tired to respond with anything helpful and forgot about responding after I woke up.

The last call I made to Ma before she passed in a state a time zone away was short, stuffy and sad. Her voice had gotten so thin I could knot its ends into a bow. She was in a hospital and I was crouched in a bathroom at Vivienne’s first gallery showing, drunk. As my black skirt rode up and the pain in my heels burned through my layers of drunkenness to reach my receptors, I crouched over the phone. Maybe it was because of the chardonnay, maybe it was because it was nearly 2 AM, or maybe it was because she was dying, but every time Ma spoke, a wire of red leaked from the speaker. Her voice was wobbled so thin, every breath, every she fit in between her curt phrases crowding my head and filling the bathroom stall with a crimson. My head felt light and I was suddenly not hearing a thing Ma was trying to say. I was an astronaut disconnected, floating infinitely in a galaxy where mothers and goodbye calls in the big stalls of museum bathrooms didn’t exist.

“Take care…” Ma finished, effectively pulling me back down to earth and the filthy tiled floor. As silence filled the angular gaps of static, I closed my eyes and imagined the gaunt square of her face—veined skin folded over the black beads of her eyes—puckering, like her last breath required a full squeeze of the soul to muster.

Before I could open my mouth to say anything back, an unfamiliar voice screamed something over the plateauing electrocardiogram and the call dropped. All of the speeches I’d written to prepare for that very last moment were wasted at my throat.


My biggest fear as a child was Ma disappearing forever—and I didn’t realize my life had always been a precarious saving mission until I went through my old things one day and found a hundred photos of Ma in a box, all taken with a desire to entrap her into memory. These pictures used to be my fixations—my naive yet earnest attempts at preservation, my precautions to extrapolate whatever time we had left on earth.

I guess it’s just true that in every lifetime, I never get to save my mother from decomposing. Rui never saves Ma because people can’t be saved—only ideas.

I only hold onto what Ma has allowed me to have: the memory of a home, the remembrance of her scent.

I’ve now lost nearly all of her except the photos I took as child—the ones where we grinned and peeled tangerines at our knees, letting citrusy tang abrade our senses. The ones where we sat at the kitchen counter unwombing caramels from their wrappers, light falling in through the windows and landing all around us. The pictures sit next to my computer today, next to all the files of my latest work. I know Ma can never truly be preserved but these Polaroids of her I can still save, and so I do.


Each sentence is beautiful and engaging... The visually driven nature of this piece connects naturally with Rui’s passion for photography, and the urge to “entrap [Ma] into memory” via a digital camera.


Catherine Xue is a young writer buried in Washingtonian suburbia. She is the author of the anthology Glitter, and her work has been recognized by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. She only ever writes in EB Garamond and she wishes she had a cat.

bottom of page