Phillip’s Exeter Academy
Claudia Ann Seaman Award
Runner-Up for Creative Nonfiction
My uncle lived in a neighborhood of Hong Kong called Stanley. Every day after school, I would skip down to his apartment and cling onto him until my parents arrived. Their car would speed down the strip of leafy road that, within the same neighborhood, begins at Hong Kong’s colossal Versailles-inspired mansions and slinks down into the housing projects– my uncle’s corner of the world. As I waited by the window for my parents’ car to turn the corner, my uncle would pinch a thin cigarette between his fingers and roll down the grooved wheel of the lighter. I used to ask him, “How are you alive if you have no teeth, you can’t eat anything, and you only smoke and drink?”
He would croak his response in Cantonese.
“魔術. It’s magic,” he would say, grinning at me through a thin veil of smoke.
This was how I knew which room of the apartment he was in, I’d follow the ribbons of gray silk that slowly disintegrated into the air, the way a child’s eyes follow a magician’s trick they can’t quite understand.
It feels as if I’m walking on air. With each step I take, my bare feet sink a little more into the Technicolor-yellow sand, leaving a winding trail of dark footprints behind me. In the near distance, a desert dune catches my eye, and another, and another, all strikingly identical—all climb to the same summit, all slope downward with the same soft curve, all cast the same shadow on the desert floor. Looking up, I come face to face with a sky so ludicrously black and boundless it takes me a split second to realize that I am even looking at something.
A flurry of color bursts onto the sky’s dark canvas. It’s a hot air balloon, with its fabric loosely stitched in haphazard patches of blue and red. A brown wicker basket suspends from the balloon, but no one is controlling this magnificent contraption. No one is there.
A unicycle suspends from the basket, tethered to it by two lines of wire.
And splayed across the seat of the unicycle is my uncle’s corpse, his body bloody and bullet-riddled, his mouth stretched into a wide smile. I am at once mesmerized and terrified.
The first time I had this dream, I was eight years old, and my uncle was still alive. Back then, I didn’t understand why this particular image rooted itself in my mind and refused to let go. My strong aversion to fantasy novels like Harry Potter confused my mother, and I would only stare into the bottom of my teacup as my friends pranced around and painted their faces pink with makeup.
Yet, my subconscious mind could conjure up images of balloons and baskets and bullet holes. Burying my face into my favorite stuffed elephant, I wanted nothing more than to step into a time machine and watch time flow in reverse. I wished I had never seen my uncle’s body or the hot air balloon floating above—I would be at peace, with only the vast sky and endless desert before me, the silence a steady static hum.
Although my uncle would later vanish suddenly from my life and leave me grasping at traces of memory, I remember the elaborate Christmas cards he used to illustrate for me, adorned with sketches of towering pine trees and scenes of snowflakes adrift. Drawing was a talent of his that had diminished over the decades, lost to the haze of a sailor’s chronic arm injury and his subsequent alcoholism, the consequences of which would haunt him until the end of his life. The graphite sketches were marked by his slight tremble, a flutter of the pencil at the corners. The red envelopes he tucked the cards into, however, were always marked with the same flourish: “To the most beautiful girl in the world.”
As I grew older, I often wandered to Stanley after school, forgetting more than once that my uncle lay confined to a hospital bed and my parents didn’t need him to look after me anymore. But I marched on to his neighborhood anyway, never realizing that I was headed in the wrong direction until I came face to face with golden fences that towered over me and the white marble pillars guarding the tantalizing secrets of the rich. At that point, dusk would have already settled over the sky, and my father would have had to drive over and retrieve me from the entryway of my uncle’s apartment. I’m sure his neighbors must have been confused by the small girl on the floor, homework strewn across the dim hallway, but they never said anything.
After my uncle died, the dream began to recur every month. It later took on new meaning for me. While I used to focus on the grotesque image of my uncle’s corpse, I now thought about the heft weighing down my body seconds before I shook awake from the dream. This weight mirrored the heaviness I felt after he died—my regret that I hadn’t kept his Christmas cards—not a single one. I couldn’t remember his favorite brand of cigarettes, or his favorite Billie Holiday album, or the way he did his hair.
Black was the color of his hair at his funeral. It was the first thing I noticed when my mother nudged me toward the window that separated us from the body in the next room.
Unlike my dream, there were no bullet holes, no blood. My uncle’s hair had been dyed black from his original gray, probably by some worker at the funeral home who had no idea how my uncle had lived and who had known him and how they would recognize him now.
The man tasked with making my uncle’s corpse look presentable definitely didn’t know that my mother hadn’t told me about his death until a week after he died. How could he have known that I had been at an Outward Bound camp that week, celebrating the end of sixth grade? I might have been warming my hands around a campfire, or hiking up a grassy trail. I might have been asleep as my uncle lay dying.
A layer of pink lip balm glistened on the body’s mouth, catching the harshly fluorescent light. It was the only thing about the body that seemed vaguely three-dimensional or real. My uncle’s spirit had already wrestled its way out of the cold body and shot toward the sky, until it was nothing but a twinkle in the distance.
As a kid, I despised my mind for harboring this dream, but I understand more now—every time I jolted awake from it, I laid still—confined to my bed until I could untangle the limbs of nightmare from reality. But that image of his gunshot-riddled body is all I have left of him. When I stop having this dream, I will lose the last connection I have to my uncle that isn’t the blood coursing through my veins. I feel like the kid in the crowd who begs the magician for one more trick, just one more, after he’s already packed up his suitcase and heads for the door. I beg my family for the truth behind how my uncle died, for stories about him, but it never works. Nothing ever changes.
Whenever I dream of balloons and bullet holes now, I feel strangely tied to him, as though I am catching up to his spirit across the galaxies that exist between the living and the dead. Not like anything is ever really dead or past, even. The dream always reminds me of my uncle’s apartment, now abandoned, where I used to follow the ribbons of gray silk that led me to him. This time around, however, my uncle doesn’t appear after the smoky haze has vanished. Through gripping onto this nightmare, I am chasing yet another disintegrating smoke trail that separates my uncle from me—this is the magic trick I cannot tear my eyes away from; this is my dizzying pursuit of a deathless disappearing act.
Like a poem, this lyric essay asked me to return to it several times and on each reading I discovered new things. The use of repetition in phrases like “I do not belong here” create a sense of urgency and danger, like someone raising their voice, and develop the tone of the piece. The situation of the essay is unique, but in it there is a universal struggle: the push and pull of a parent-child relationship and the pain that comes from an attempt to control someone. One of the things I love about creative nonfiction is that there are so many different ways to execute it and here we have a piece that in a short space leaves a lasting impression. -- Paula Carter, Creative Nonfiction Judge
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrea So is a senior (class of 2020) at Phillip’s Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. Originally hailing from Hong Kong, she has been a big reader since the age of 10. Some of her favorite books include Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey, Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov and The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg.