Lake Forest, IL
Stevenson High School
Claudia Ann Seaman Award
Winner for Creative Nonfiction
Three months ago, sitting alone in my room, I stumbled across a picture of the middle school I attended in Nebraska. The children there are probably beginning second grade, still believing in the tooth fairy while wearing blue school t-shirts ironed by their mothers and blonde hair brushed by their sisters. And, yet, in the middle of the crowd stands an Asian girl (the only one) whose eyes are pulled into slits in her unadulterated happiness.
She reminds me so much of myself.
Jacket practically orbiting her thin frame and smile softer, more blended, than the rest of her classmates, she stands, incognizant of her otherness but nonetheless branded by it. I stare at her, transfixed, and somehow, somewhere, I am seven again.
There’s a basket of plums that sits on the counter of the kitchen, marinating in the soft hum of the fridge. They ripen and ripple in the emptiness of my home in the afternoons, and when their sweetness douses the air with hints of neglect, my mother will shave away their peels and sink her teeth into their flesh.
When my family and I used to live among the Nebraskan corn and red-rum necks of farmers, it was quieter. The occasional scraping of leaves against cream plaster, the faint chirps from birds at the birth of morning, these noises permeate my memory of childhood; and yet, in the midst of my own silent stupor, I can hear them. How they spit out their “th”s and “f”s with missing front teeth, how their cherry tongues chewed out words tarter than the grapefruits my mother laid out for breakfast, I hear their voices.
“Chink, you don’t belong here. Go back to China.”
Every Saturday, my family drives to the local supermarket to replenish the basket with hardened plums, their flesh being squeezed and spread in cardiac rhythms as our hands test their readiness.
“Not this one, Linlin,” my mother will say. “This one is not ready for eating.”
I was in love, then. He was a year older and fuller at the shoulders than other boys his age, and when the lurid sun licked the contours of his neck, droplets of freckles would pool in its wake — softened toffee on a canvas of white. In the fading summer, he was golden and beautiful.
From what I remember of that time, our families were as close to friends as each could manage. His parents had showed mine kindness and acknowledged them in passing on their weekend walks, but my mother, fearful of her missing predicates and is, was, were, his, and are, only smiled.
“Study hard, Linlin, and then your dad and I can return to China,” she said. I nodded in response because there was nothing else to say.
For me and my sister, childhood was quiet, not only in the way nature breathed at us, but also in the way we spoke with our mother. America had been harsh and unforgiving on her pearl skin, deflowering it under the weight of my father’s absence, the guilt of buying clearanced milk and cheese for her babies, and her loneliness. At work, when she needed help, she could never form her tongue around the consonants and vowels to make her coworkers understand her, and so she stayed quiet, radiating otherness in her silence.
Perhaps that was why I was so attracted to Hunter.
The soft flesh of the plums is desecrated by her molars, and its scent perfumes the kitchen. When she’s finished and the juices are lapped up by her greedy tongue, my mother, in her forgetfulness, will leave their shriveled shells behind.
It’s the little things about him that I remember — how my feet and shins seemed to soak up his warmth, how his lips reached the skies when he smiled, and how his pale skin stood like the moon against the tide that was my yellowness. When I’m alone at night, I can see him so clearly.
Tuesday: park with Hunter
Wednesday: study and Hunter
Thursday: Hunter, Hunter, Hunter, Hunter
How could I not remember him? He had shown me my first waterpark and taught me, that day, how to doggy-paddle across the shallow end of the pool. Later, he would cause my first beating when I stayed at his house in the middle of a hailstorm to play with nerf guns and eat apple slices dressed in caramel without calling my mother. To me, he was everything that America wanted me to be, everything that my classmates told me I should have been as he patiently wore through my time and youth.
He was safe.
When he was next to me, heat from his fingers entwined with mine, it didn’t matter that my classmates left me alone to bleed onto wood chips from scraped knees. Because he accepted me. Because he stayed.
In time, though, the shells themselves, too, will fade and decompose, leaving nothing behind except for the scent of what had once been.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to be a pilot, a pilot that can fight in wars and shoot guns and be epic.”
“Well, Hunter, I want to be here, with you, five years later, fingers still tracing the stars and connecting them in pictures. I want to be your friend, to be big high schoolers that can walk home alone and eat snacks at night. Yeah, I think that’s what I’d like to be.”
“Do you by chance like me? You know, more than a friend? … Because my type is older and more muscular.”
“Hunter, I -–"
Watching as my mother bites into the golden, freckled plums from the market, I feel something twisting in my stomach. The branding of wealth saturates every corner, every detail of my home, and when I close my eyes and taste the expired yogurts that coated my tongue in Nebraska, it’s unfamiliar.
My mother, a cancer survivor who is now losing to America, exists solely in the confines of her at-home office, fingernails cracking on laptop keys; my father, who left his love for medical research, wears ties that choke him and dress shirts that bind him immobile and fading, counting down the hours on the clock until he can leave the hospital. I wonder, when my parents were not poor but poor was them, if they were happier.
“Linlin, study. Only one more year until college.”
Twice a year, though, my mother grows a little bit fuller when her work brings her back to Nebraska. Her hips expand and her back stands a little straighter, and as she buys a $300 airplane ticket without hesitation, I won’t ask her to bring me with her.
Perhaps it’s fear. Fear that the forget-me-not colored house where I grew up will be painted over in monotonous white, that the tomato plants we cultivated under stinging summer heat will be forsaken by the house’s new owners, and that when I walk, three houses down and across the street, Hunter’s family will still be there. He should be sixteen now, still a year older and fuller, and at night, when the translucent Nebraskan skies paint figures with stars, perhaps he’s laying on the trampoline in his yard that is tucked in by trees, blowing blueberries and breathing heavily as the shell of an Asian girl who loved him graces his memory.
Perhaps, I want to keep it that way. In decay, I’ll begin to breathe.
This essay is full of powerful images. I found myself saying, “Yes! Yes!” at images like a plum beating in a cardiac rhythm as the narrator’s hand tests its ripeness and a too big jacket “orbiting” around another child’s “thin frame.” But more than that, the piece reveals emotional truths with subtly, a challenging thing for any writer to do. The narrator reflects on her own first love, to a boy “golden and beautiful” when she is the immigrant girl in a predominately white area; but the narrator is also able to look beyond her own struggles and see clearly her mother’s who “could never form her tongue around the consonants and vowels to make her coworkers understand her, and so she stayed quiet, radiating otherness in her silence.” Compassionate honesty and fresh uses of language make this essay stand out. -- Paula Carter, Creative Nonfiction Judge
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cheryl Chen is a senior from Stevenson High School, Illinois and will be graduating in 2020 (this year!). A lover of all things Murakami, Cheryl is a prospective English major who cares deeply about societal injustices. When not overthinking, she can be found with friends or curled up with a home-cooked meal.