by Yiu-On Li
Art by Coby Chuang
Issue: Ataraxia (Spring 2018)
I. Me. Light. Breath. Cold. Tears. These were my first memories of this world, and will presumably be my last.
I remember the day with unusual clarity, as if I were meant to carry its weight with me for the rest of my days: the raggedy chuckles of sorrow and delight, the doctors holding me in their arms, the hazy world so unknown to me, and my sobs.
Oh, my sobs. I could never forget those sobs. I wailed on and on; I’m sure more than a few people began to think that I was more trouble than I was worth. No amount of their “isn’t she adorable?” platitudes could have disguised their misgivings, and with the way things are now, they were probably right.
My parents took me home from the hospital, set me aside, and squabbled for a bit. I imagine they were trying to figure out what to do with me. I was still crying.
I guess I wasn’t the bundle of joy they wanted. Shame. No worries.
Because tomorrow was another day.
I managed, with agonizing sluggishness, to push the pedals of my tricycle this way and that, rotating its wheels on the carpet. A dreary sequence of notes sounded from an electric speaker to the side, reverberating throughout the house. It was perhaps the most fun I ever had, but I wasn’t strong enough to continue for long. Yet.
It was a nice summer afternoon, outside . A cool breeze quietly rustled the living room curtains, and a lethargic beam of golden sunlight made plain the specks of dust floating in from the outside. Through the window, I could see the scattered clouds wandering above, observing the streets without a care in the world. I sat transfixed, even as faint, exasperated shouting drifted in from the next room.
I still think back to then with a strange kind of nostalgia, in spite of everything. What I would have given just to forget about everything within the warmth of an expansive, grassy meadow, relaxing in the solace and solitude offered by the gentle sky, the refreshing air, and the solid dirt, drowning out the bustling voices in my reverie as I drifted slowly into the darkness of sleep.
I think nothing different now. If only it were that easy.
Maybe I could have done something when their screaming became deafening and the house shook from their rage. Maybe I should have spoken up when they emerged into the living room bloody and beat, cursing under their breaths. Maybe I would have stopped my mother from chasing my father out the door, fists raised, eyes soulless, shrieking at the top of her lungs to never come near her or her daughter ever again.
Maybe if I had never been born, things would have been better somehow.
But for all my lofty notions, my body could only sag immobile on my tricycle, awash and shivering in gilded rays, too terrified to let out even the tiniest croak. All I could hear was my own trembling on the plastic of the seat and the deathly droning of the speaker.
My mother returned from the door, cleaned herself up, and, almost as a second thought, wrapped her arms around me in a quick squeeze. Then she disappeared, and I felt too vulnerable for my own liking. I crawled close to the flickering heat within me.
I told myself that I would never come back out. But tomorrow was another day.
Her. And then I met her.
She was just another foolish creature of the rat infestation that I had long since grown disgusted with. When she entered late on that frosty, cloudy first day of school, I knew without looking that about 30 pairs of eyes had almost instantly locked into hers. They were wide, ignorant orbs filled with a voracious appetite and the privilege of stability, and too many a time have they crossed my way. But I sympathized with her plight much less than I empathized.
Yet, whether or not it was due to a lack of seats or genuine keenness, she decided to sit down next to me. I couldn’t turn her away, for reasons I still do not understand.
Despite my best interest, judgment, and efforts, the next few months became an avalanche of exhilaration. We discovered our own loveless parents and shared our loneliness and talked and talked and talked until life always wrenched us back into reality.
She asked me once what I thought of life. I told her that it was a cruel joke the world was fond of playing, but I choked on my words even as I said them. She was not a joke; she was everything. She hugged me before I could say more, and my convictions evaporated at once into the atmosphere. Or so I thought.
We became closer. A certain truth developed, and every day turned into a growing struggle to convince myself otherwise. I told myself that I didn’t care, that I was the only one I needed in my life, that once I returned to being alone I would feel that oh-so-satisfying surge of glacial dejection once again. The truth nevertheless swelled and swelled until it broiled every corner of my being, disappointment driving me on rather than away.
It was a Thursday morning, once, when I thought of telling her. She sat on a bench, hands tucked neatly in her lap, eyes glazed and focused into the distance, face illuminated with beams from the blue beyond. I forgot about myself, and I could vaguely feel my left foot step forward, then my right foot, then left, then right, left, right, left, right, until the patter of shoes to ground faded into nothing.
She looked up at me. I told her that she had turned my gloom into hope, gave me faith in the world when I never had it, was the grassy, sunlit, breezy meadow I had been searching for. We embraced, shared a timid kiss, and lived happily ever after.
Yet my reality was far less elegant than my fantasy. I do not remember how long I stood in front of her in silence, only that it was long enough for me to lose all will and leave without a word. I shuddered as familiar misery coursed through me once more.
But it was more overwhelming than I had ever known.
She wouldn’t understand, I told myself in a dull mumble over and over again until I tingled with numbness. And that was that.
She kissed another girl a few months later. I tried as best as I could to be happy for them, but every remark of goodwill I gave only further chilled my body from a fizzy euphoria into a thick, icy sludge of agony unlike anything I had ever felt before or have felt since.
And that was that.
But tomorrow was another day, I thought.
I, and I alone, could fix this mess. They were all idiots, every single one of them.
Inhale. Hold. Bitter exhale. Lingering breath. Wintry mist. Then, nothing ever at all. My stomach opened its gaping maws and consumed me, starting first with my legs and traveling steadily outward to my chest and then to my toes and then to my head. It digested me with a feeling I knew not. A shriveled, shuddering, indeterminate mass my body became. I have come here to die, and all shall rejoice.
No. Not yet. I stared above. The comforting fluorescent rays fell like angels on my skin. Gilded rays. A genocide. I confined the beast once more. I know I cannot slay it. All that remained was a slight trembling. Relief. Peace.
Then, a maelstrom. Cranial veins pounded in tandem with my swells of anger. The papers in my hand withered under the force of my collapsing hands. What was in this room? Rows of flimsy gunmetal filing cabinets grounded on concrete, as far as the eye could see, and dreams neatly tucked away to be forgotten. The faint buzz of the lights like busy insects. An ant toiling ceaselessly, dotting i’s and crossing t’s, holding the fabric of everything together so that others could soil it and live. To be forgotten.
And what of me? Who would be left to care if I stuffed these papers, wrinkled and aging and disheveled, into the next drawer? No one to mourn the fallen. The moronic opinions of a stranger were of no consequence. Why should I care? Why should I care? Why?
But I had to care. It was my job. To work is to live. To stop is to die. Not yet.
And so I continued, tranquilizing my frustrations, transferring the papers I had stuffed into the cabinet to their proper places, organizing these menial records in the depths of some underground basement, dotting those i’s and crossing those t’s until the end of time. Wishing I would collapse and decompose in some unremarkable afternoon.
Tomorrow was yet another day.
We. Light. Breath. Warmth. Tears. These are the memories I wish I had more of.
I try my best to search for some contentment within me, something that I can say made my time on this Earth worthwhile. Nothing but my own thoughts of lost grandeur to keep me company, family and friends all absent and accounted for.
Might things have been different? Is it my fault? None of it matters now. My suffering is someone’s joy. Net happiness conserved.
It is coming. I rustle my bedsheets and run weak fingers through my white and stale hair. My thoughts grow faint, my heartbeat quiets, the room dims further.
But as I take my last breaths in this accursed world, I finally find it: a spark of satisfaction. The pettiness of the moment erupts and seizes me, and I expend the last ounce of my vitality to laugh as I have never laughed before. The laughter comes freely and ripples throughout my being.
A cough. Tranquil exhaustion. It has come. The lush grass tickles my arms. The sun does not feel like a lie. It massages my aching soul, pulls my body down. The warmth encircles me as I impart a final smile, bittersweet, into the pitch black. Then even that fades, never to be seen again. Time, the arbiter of all.
And tomorrow is another day.