by Emily Liu
Art by James Kao
Issue: Audeamus (Winter 2011)
She leans out over the balcony, the railing pressing deep into her stomach. It’s all right, just ignore it, she tells herself as she closes her eyes and inhales deeply. The air is extremely hot and humid, especially for the end of September.
When, at last, the wind picks up, she is disappointed. The weather must be angry, because every gust is thick and sultry. Before she retreats back inside, however, she glances down out of habit. The apartment views hardly have anything worth looking at in general, but she’s glad she switched sides of the building for this year even though the hassle of moving had her stressed for days. It’s worth it; last year’s view from the seventh floor was all gray squares littered with pebble-sized cars and specks of people, rushing, rushing, rushing. Now, she’s close enough to see laughing faces in the park, the ground is filled with shades of green, with shrubs the size of golf balls and a pond a child’s wobbly circle. It’s a good change of scene—it makes her hopeful, for the future and for herself.
From the roof, the duck pond is even smaller, the circle of the watch face on a wrist. But that nasty-tempered couple in the penthouse is home, so even if the weather complied, they wouldn’t, so therefore the staircase to the top is off-limits. She’s always liked the facade of being on top of the world such height has always given her, and the solemn emptiness suits her and gives her room to think, less cagey than her rooms. Not like anyone else goes up there—just her, a lonely university student at the no-name place down the road she got into with a passable GPA and not-so-passable SAT score.
He sits beside her in Accounting class, likes to click his pen excessively during lecture. She contemplates asking him to stop, please, but the words stop in her throat awkwardly every time and each note she scrawls out with the intention of passing to him, she ends up tossing into the recycle bin on the way out of class.
It’s his keys that clue her in. She quickly recognizes the dusty hue of the picture on his key chain, a golden retriever puppy of a shade closer to white.
She’s seen that color before. When she had been gazing out at the park idly Sunday evening because the wind had decided to cool last week for one lucky evening, she had noticed a person wearing a blue baseball cap and the golden-white dog, playing fetch, rolling in the grass—all of the dogs she’d seen before were varying shades of black and brown. She had tried to conjure the sound of his laughter and the dog’s bark, smiling slightly, but now she frowns, abruptly shy. It’s free work time. He’s joking around with his countless friends, and bursts out laughing.
To be honest, it sounds even better than she imagined.
She blinks her eyes, rubs the sleep from them. But no—there it is, sitting not-so-innocently in her inbox. She recognizes the sender immediately; they haven’t tried to contact her ever since the card last Christmas that she immediately trashed at the sight of the printed, impersonal message inside. Her mouse hovers over the neutral subject, hesitating, always hesitating.
Today is Saturday. Surely there will be enough time to deal with it later, she reasons, and powers down her computer to go down to breakfast. In the cafeteria, she ignores it when her orange juice fails to push the lump of croissant and foreboding down her throat.
She worries all weekend, pushing people even farther away than usual. With the couple out on vacation, she goes up to the roof to lose herself in the cold breeze and the shimmering stars that seem to pulse, to breathe with her. Maybe they’re trying to tell her something, but the honk of a car steals those words before they reach her ears. Either way, it’s no help, she has no one else to ask, and she goes to bed that night lonely and afraid with freezing hands to boot.
It seems that he noticed her fidgeting all through Accounting. He didn’t click his pen, at least, as if he had sensed something was off today. He must have enough to deal with himself, anyway; her bad habit of glancing his way during lulls in lecture yielded the worrying sight of dark rings under his eyes. Yet again, words of concern and friendliness remain clenched in her chest.
Sunday evening, she stares down her laptop screen, and she loses.
The mouse hovers again, but the screen fades to black before she realizes it. She wakes it up three times, and finally opens the email.
Formalities, pleasant but brittle. Questions, wanting to know how she is, how university is. A half-hearted attempt at describing how home is, one she doesn’t need because she knows things won’t have changed because of her, not if they can help it. Her parents address her directly, asking about every single detail. For them, this is a stunning compromise.
She rubs her eyes again, but the words remain the same. Still the same sentences and grammar and punctuation. Her parents have always written with everything capitalized properly, contractions completely written out.
She begins to reply but falters and deletes every word.
There’s a pop quiz in Accounting. She flounders through, sighing quietly to herself when it’s turned in, but he groans loudly and slumps back in his chair. It hadn’t been too bad though. Accounting appealed to her because of its simplicity and straightforwardness, the job availability, and, most importantly, the ability to leave the area for work.
The lecture today however goes in one ear and out the other as she stares at the email again, fingers hovering over the keyboard without pressing a single key. She notices him put his head down halfway through the hour, as if he doesn’t have the strength to sit up properly anymore; thankfully, the professor doesn’t see, so she doesn’t think about it too much either. Her notes become a rough draft of her reply email. Drag, “OK,” gone.
What do I write back? Do I write back? she frets. Should she be equally polite, or would a terse, “Don’t talk to me” suffice? If she does write a longer response, what is there to put in it? Her days are dreary, full of homework and staring lankly into the distance, occasional annoyance with the weather which has continued to hold as uncomfortably hot, uncharacteristic of the season. She rarely uses her voice, not even to sing along to the radio.
Eventually, her email back is exactly that—polite things about school and the weather. Nothing more, nothing less.
She tells them that Principles of Accounting is her favorite class.
He’s at the park again. With the reply sent, she is draped over her balcony railing once again to enjoy the cool near-dark provides. Under a yellow streetlight that makes his now full grown retriever the right color, he trips and sprawls out onto the ground but doesn’t move to get back up, and the dog flops down beside him. Maybe it cocked its head to the side as if listening intently to his words when he rolls over to face it, but she’s not close enough to see. At last, after almost half an hour, he drags himself upright and they disappear out of sight down the sidewalk.
She vaguely recalls the caress of silken fur at her fingertips, the lick of an eager tongue across her cheeks as she laughed and tried to push her puppy off—the same color as his. It scares her how long it takes to remember her only, true best friend. Even when she fell ill, the poor dog still managed a half-hearted wag of the tail and the same adoring eyes for her when she got back from school, fully believing her owner could save her from the sickness and they’d be back to playing outside. Despite all her crying and pleading, her parents refused to take the puppy to the veterinarian, insisting that she shouldn’t get too dependent on medicine.
After, she refused to speak to her parents for months. Now, her lips shape words and her vocal cords strain, but no sound comes out. She remembers her last words: an incorrect answer in Introduction to Finance last year. A calculator mistake. That’s the problem with Accounting: all of it is numbers, and all of it is pathetically open to mistake.
He misses a week of school and she gets the entire table to herself. The class buzzes with possibilities of what happened to him, and she grasps just how popular and well-liked he is—the way she has always longed to be like, to be greeted brightly the very moment she steps into class instead of slipping into her seat immediately, unseen and silent. Her admiration has somehow evolved into a quiet attraction, but he will never find out about it from her mouth.
She forces herself to pull her attention away for now, focusing on the email her parents sent back last night at exactly 7:00pm. The politeness and emptiness are still there, yet she found herself capable of returning the message at once.
But why would they send her an email? Back then, it was her who always went to apologize first after every argument, her who bent to the wills of the iron fists at the head of the family. All her childhood, their tenacity was just something she knew and accepted. But that changed, and she has held her stubborn silence out for so long, against every counselor and psychologist, taken it with her to school even, and now they’ve caved.
The professor decides to assign a big, tax-filled project, the kind that needs multiple people to check and compute every number again and again because accuracy is everything. Everyone is to work with the person sitting beside them.
She’s always preferred working independently anyways. Working, living, being. It’s hard to do group projects when one refuses to talk. The girl sitting behind her happily writes down his email for her; jealousy for this girl aside, it makes her almost excited to have this means of contact with him, but she knows she’ll never use it.
The emails from her parents continue.
When he comes back to class, his thick, black woolen beanie isn’t big enough to hide his lack of hair, isn’t pulled down far enough to hide the tired suffering in his eyes.
This time, she averts her eyes from the unhappy curve of his once-broad shoulders, uncomfortably skinny in the blue sweatshirt. Looking at him hurts, a betrayal he never knew of.
His funeral is on a Sunday. She catches a ride with the girl from Accounting, whose eyes are swollen red. Perhaps this girl meant something special to him—a close friend from high school, a girlfriend now devastated, a childhood friend?
She wears all black, head to toe, didn’t even have to search through her wardrobe all weekend to find a suitable outfit. Turns out she fits in well at funerals, with the general aura of somber silence.
The ceremony is long, flat, and full of clichés, dry and unpleasant formalities. He was beyond clichés, that much she knew. He would have hated this scene, all of those people sobbing into hands and handkerchiefs, the tear-stained faces of his mother and father and younger sister.
It’s impossible to picture the stony faces of her own parents shining with tears like theirs, even with their recent change of heart. They didn’t shed a single tear then.
Once the service is over, she bows her head with everyone else. What am I doing here? She only sat next to him in Accounting for the past few months. She never exchanged words with him, never held a conversation at all, meaningless or not. The lines of her life and his barely touched, not even an overlap, but something compelled her to come along today.
If the two of them had become friends, what would have happened? Classmates that waved when passing in the school grounds. Studying together for Accounting tests in the library maybe, or even going to the park with his dog that might have filled the emptiness in her heart; they do look similar, after all. Maybe meeting his sister and getting to know her too, beyond that face that looked so much like his. Maybe best friends, perhaps even lovers. Holding hands on the way to class, constant smiles, anxiety and nervousness coupled with joy and euphoria.
She didn’t even know anything about him. She had no idea what his hobbies were, what the name of his dog was, what his family life was like (hopefully not like her own, hopefully something tightly knit and happy—but not too tight and happy, because now they’ll be ruined). The only images she has of him are his excessive pen-clicking, his laughter at the worst jokes, the brightest sound that ever met her ears now extinguished, and the few classes he made it to in the end. She’s never felt that incandescent smile pointed toward her, nor has she ever heard his mouth form the consonants and vowels of her name.
A world of possibilities, one that she missed out on and one that was taken away from her by the inevitable growth of cells into an unstoppable mass.
One greeting could have been enough. One smile to pull her out of the shell her classmates and parents forced her into creating, one word to make life worth living again. One little action to end the suspending spell of loneliness and boredom she are trapped in now. She can’t help but blame him, trying to escape the fact that the blame belongs to her and her weakness.
And now it’s over.
Her email that night doesn’t mention a funeral or enough regret to fill every ocean on the planet.
Just a note on how the weather is now finally and gradually cooling into autumn for real and the Accounting project due tomorrow. With just one name on the title page.