Look Behind, Look Here, Look Ahead

by Vivian Chan
Issue: Elysium (Spring 2012)

You’re seven years old when your mother pulls out a photo album, heavy and mahogany. You’ve looked through the family photo albums before, on the lower shelf of the wooden bookcase located precariously near the piano, and you wonder why your mother is looking at you the way she is. You don’t like the way she’s looking at you, but you don’t tell her that.

“Mama?” you venture timidly.

Her dark brown eyes blink. “Shh,” she says after a beat passes. She opens the photo album and begins turning the pages. “Sienna, I have something important to tell you.”

Something dark and fierce coils in your stomach. You know. “I know.”

“What?” Her head jerks.

You exhale softly. “The other people at school,” you say evenly. “They’re always talking about it.”

“Oh.” She stills her movements. “Oh. Sienna, I’m sorry. I should have told you sooner.”

“‘Bout what?” you ask sullenly.

But your mother shakes her head determinedly and gathers you up in her arms. You try to resist at first, but you’re only seven and you still blindly believe that your mother’s unconditional love can solve the problems of the universe. So you let her enfold you and your eyes happen to drop on an open page in the photo album.

You’re a baby in those pictures. Your eyes are blue.

But now…

But now.

Your mother never fully explains the whole story to you, never sits you down and says, “This is what happened.” She never tells you how she had watched you suddenly cry a long, drawn-out, despairing cry (you were only three, I didn’t know what was wrong, what was I supposed to do Sienna), before blinking harshly in the light, tear tracks on your face.

She never tells you a lot of things, but you piece it together with the pictures and the cruel whispers in the hallways of school.

At the age of three, your eyes turned brown, your soul mate died, and your life changed.

(Not necessarily in that order. You must remember that.)

In high school, you’re Dirt. Literally.

The kids with blue eyes—Blue Eyes—won’t let you forget that. It’s a habit of theirs to take mud and smear it over the lockers of known Dirt, early in the morning before the janitors and teachers are about. There are the names, the sneering glances, the physical assaults. But Dirt people retaliate. “Blue Eyes, hey Blue Eyes,” they say, “heyyy.” Faux politeness that contain underlying insults; it’s the tone, not the words, that matters then.

You think that mankind’s too old for petty insults. But mankind has no lasting age. Ice Age, Dark Ages, this country’s or that city’s Golden Age, et cetera.

There is a girl who used to be your friend. But she became afraid, thinking that there would be a greater chance of her eyes turning brown if she continued to be around you. That’s a lie, you had said—pleaded. You know it’s a lie. But everyone knows that soul mates mean everything. A soul mate takes precedence in a person’s life, even if she hasn’t found that soul mate yet, so dumping a friend is nothing in comparison. Worse has happened to Dirt.

(Over a million people commit suicide every year. Guess how many had brown eyes.)

“You need to be more positive,” Sky huffs. There’s over a dozen different Skys in your grade because of parents who wanted to name their children after something seemingly limitless and blue, but this is your Sky, the only one who really talks to you. Not like you’ve let anyone else try.


“Your thoughts are so depressing,” she responds, sitting next to you on the ground. The ground is cold and dirty, but she doesn’t flinch. That’s one of the reasons you like her so much.

“What’s your definition of ‘positive,’ then?” you shoot back at her. It’s lunchtime and you’re hungry, but you don’t want to eat. You hate eating. It makes you feel alive.

“I don’t know…”

“Liar.” Your voice is calm, but your lips twitch. “How many guys did you flirt with this past week?”

“I don’t flirt.” Sky sounds aghast, but her eyes are dancing. She looks beautiful. “I’m just…playing.”

“Playing,” you repeat flatly.

“Well, I know for a fact that my soul mate’s not in this school.” She tosses her hair back with a slender hand, but she can’t hide the disappointed shadow that crosses her face. “I’ve eyeballed every single guy I’ve run into and nothing. Nada.”

“I’ve noticed.” To your amazement, your response comes out sincere rather than dry. You look over her face, noting her blue eyes. You smile. “Blue Eyes.”

Don’t call me that,” she moans, slapping your shoulder half-heartedly. “I’m just saying that since I’m not going to find my soul mate here, I might as well have fun. Things don’t have to be so serious and depressing just because…” She stops and raises her hand to cover her mouth. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Doesn’t matter,” you say with a shrug, and you mean it even if Sky doesn’t look convinced. She won’t understand, not as long as she has blue eyes.

She’s not the only one, though. Plenty of people have relationships, casual or not, in high school. Obviously it doesn’t matter for students with brown eyes, but it’s almost as futile for the other side. The casualty is almost childishly cruel, a mockery, but the serious ones tend to end badly. People want to be sure, to see the end, endgame, fin, and most won’t find their endgame in high school or anywhere else.

The whole thing seems tiring and sad to you.

You’re not the only one, though. There are those who drag themselves through life, bristling at everyone else, sullen and resentful. Then there are those who have to see the silver lining because they won’t know how to live with themselves otherwise, and it’s true that it can be a blessing, not having to be so frantic about a soul mate. Occasionally, there’s a Dirt who cares about none of it, the whole mess and eyes and romance business. No matter what kind of Dirt you are, though, there is always opposition, conflict, tension.

You don’t tell Sky that sometimes you hate brown so much that you can’t stand yourself and you end up doing something stupid, like defacing the dining table at home.

What happens is that you take a knife from the kitchen and you lie underneath the dining table so that you can see its brown belly. You hate brown at that moment, and before you can stop yourself, you begin to scratch at the table with the knife. Dust falls into your eyes and you ultimately end up blunting the knife, but when you are finished, you survey the crooked “B” you have carved on the underside of the table.

The sight almost makes you laugh. Instead, you stare at the “B” for a long minute before rolling out from underneath the table.

You throw away the knife and no one else notices the carving.

There are two people who don’t have blue or brown eyes in your school.

One of them is a freshman girl, Celeste. You’re a TA for one of her classes. You hear the whole story as you’re marking papers.

She’s surrounded by girls, some who are her friends and some who are not. She’s pseudo-shy, speaking in a hushed voice but unable to hide the brightness of her hazel eyes or the extravagant hand gestures as she tells her story.

“I met him at the mall,” she says, blushing with pleasure at the attention. “When I saw him… I felt all warm and everything was tingling and I could tell that he felt the same. I just knew, you know?” Her adoring crowd nods in agreement even though you notice that they all have blue eyes. They cannot possibly know. You can’t begrudge them that fact, and you even understand. What Celeste has experienced is rare, even exotic. Luck, they call it. Fate. Blessing. Curse.

“How old is he?”

“He’s a college student,” Celeste answers, her face now flush with pride, and she brings her hands down to fiddle delicately with the hem of her sweatshirt. (You hate her voice.) “We’re going on a date this weekend.”

“Your parents let you?”

“Of course,” she says with surprise. “He’s my soul mate.” Her face lights up. “We love each other.”

Is that it? You stare over at Celeste and her gaggle of fans. Is that the answer to the meaning of life, to the secrets of the universe? You think back to Sky and her various exploits, and then look back at Celeste with her red cheeks and satisfied aura; the means and the end. You think of the trashy magazines that feature love stories of soul mates who find each other against all odds. Touch of the magic wand and all is well. You think of the movies, books, advertisements with desperate people looking for other, even more desperate people.

Is that all there is to having a soul mate?

You know better, though. The other person with hazel eyes at school sits next to you in math. Tanner smokes—you can smell it on his breath—and his eyes are usually vacant during class, only sharpening whenever the teacher wanders dangerously near. He barely speaks to you and you do the same, only glancing at him sideways when he isn’t paying attention. He doesn’t talk to anyone else, so no one knows his story yet.

There’s one day when you stay late to work on a group project. The sky is starting to darken when you exit the front entrance, and you decide to call your mother.

That’s when you notice him.

Tanner is leaning against the wall. Smoke from his cigarette rises in the air. You hide yourself behind a corner and watch because it’s obvious that he’s waiting for someone.

That someone arrives on a bicycle, but the way he dismounts the vehicle and brushes the hair out of his forehead makes it seem like he arrived on a motorcycle. He’s wearing a pair of sunglasses, a ridiculous sight to see considering it is almost evening, and he’s taller than you—maybe older too. You watch as he smooths a hand down his black jeans and walks leisurely to where Tanner is. The two don’t exchange verbal greetings, choosing instead to slouch next to each other.

Tanner passes a cigarette to the stranger, who takes out his own lighter and helps himself. They smoke quietly together for a long five minutes and you begin to shiver.

At last, the stranger turns and gets back on the bike. He pedals away without looking back at Tanner, surrounded by cigarette butts and silence.

A minute later, Tanner leaves, flicking ash as he does so.

The next day, you turn to Tanner and awkwardly try to make conversation. “Um, hi.”

His hazel eyes are ice. “What?”

Your courage fails and the two of you never speak again. You tell yourself that it isn’t much of a loss as you’ve become very good at piecing the unspoken things together.

“Lucia!” you yell, pounding on her door.

“Sienna!” she yells back mockingly.

“You’re not supposed to take my clothes without my permission.” The door’s locked and you slump next to it, scowling. “Especially not my blue dress.”

“But you never wear it anyway.” You can hear the pout in her voice and it pisses you off.

“That’s not the point! You have to ask in the first place.”

“But it matches my eyes,” she snaps through the door. There are sounds of movement inside, rustling clothes and objects being dropped onto wooden surfaces. “It’s not like you need it anyway.” Hint of scorn, drop of pity, some regret mixed with it because she’s your sister but she’s your sister.

It’s a low blow and she knows it. It’s nothing you haven’t heard before, but that doesn’t make it sting any less.

So you snap back, “Well, fine. Fool around with a guy who isn’t your soul mate. Go screw yourself.”

“Fine,” she echoes, affronted. “Fine. Whatever.”


Silence reigns and the confrontation is finished. You think about beating back a retreat to your room, but you’re so tense and angry that you don’t. Instead, you get another knife from the kitchen and head for the dining table. You find yourself sliding underneath to look at the “B” you carved before, and your fingers trace the blunted scratches around the letter. You hate brown and you hate your sister, both at this very moment, and you begin to dig until you’ve etched a slashed “S” next to the “B.” S for sister, S for soul mate.

Then you draw back and look at what you’ve done. You blink. “BS.”

This time, you really do laugh.

When you ask your mother about her history with your father, her mouth quirks and her eyes dart to the family photo albums on the lower shelf of the wooden bookcase located precariously near the piano. She knows that what you’re really asking about is the story behind your father’s blue eyes in those pictures, the older ones when your parents had still been in college. His eyes are brown now, and he never gives any sign that it was once different for him.

“I was majoring in Business,” she says, arms and fingers spread on the dining table. “He was majoring in Intercolor Studies. He was doing a project and that’s how we met.

“He was the one who asked me out. I think he was trying to get close to me during that project.”

Insert nervous giggle. Fast forward a few years.

“Your father was—and is—a serious man. But he never really tried looking for his soul mate. We were still dating when his eyes… Well, it settled things and he moved on quickly. He said that he was glad he hadn’t invested himself in searching. It made things easier.”

That’s how she ends the story. Your mother is a woman of detail.

But you scan pictures of your father when he was younger and you read a few of the articles that he writes. You know enough to say that your father is a man who treats people equally, regardless of their eye color. In fact, you almost believe that he lives as though soul mates aren’t even a subject to consider. You meet who you meet and you love whom you love. Far from an uncommon point of view, really, as you know that a Dirt has no choice but to find companionship in others.

It is clear that your father is deeply engrossed in the intricacies of intercolor dynamics. You’ve always been more fascinated with the hopelessness of it all. Race, age, even time period—nothing restricts who your soul mate is. Thus, so many are born with brown eyes because their soul mate has already been dead for years. And so many will always have blue eyes because they’ll never find their soul mate, because of location or time; the fault of the present and the future.

Only one out of a million blue-eyed people will see their eyes turn hazel. It’s despairing.

Your father speaks of animosity, tension, bitterness that once split the world into two, before anyone understood the fragility of it all. He’s read the history books and so have you. He makes up more than a few terms, dividing Dirt into two categories of “hopeful mountain climbers” and “resentful rock dwellers,” and he creates subcategories for his categories. He applies the same categories to the other side, except in a different context, but it doesn’t matter much. His words contain an edge whenever they mention a Blue Eyes, like a leftover trace of what was has seized hold of his soul.

He’s received a lot of heat for his provocative articles. You don’t mind the provoking so much; you believe that it’s a sign of attitude. What you care less for is the way he has a compulsive need to have a name or label for every single person unfortunate enough to grace the earth:

There are those who accept and move on, and there are those who do not.

You’re not sure which category you belong in. You don’t like labels or categories to begin with. So you pretend that you’ve read nothing of significance and continue forging on, sparing nary a thought for your father’s articles.

That’s a lie.

There’s a moment that you remember, one of the only moments concerning your father that you can recall that doesn’t have him shut away in his room. There’s a park, the same park that you pass by on the longer route to school, and you were eight when he clumsily pointed out other kids in sandboxes, on the swings, all kids with blue eyes.

“The same,” he had tried to explain, pushing you to make friends. He had been too insistent, too determined, too purposeful. “You’re all the same.”

But I’m not, were the words that you hadn’t said. Instead, you hid yourself somewhere in your mind, too far away for your father to reach. You were too young and now you’re too removed. You don’t want any part of this, and now he doesn’t want any part of your apathy, fear, hesitance. No longer does he comment on your friends or lack thereof. No longer does he mediate the clashes you have with your sister. No longer does he look at you in the eye and attempt a semblance of understanding.

Now your father writes for the world—but he can’t even connect with his own family.

He isn’t someone who goes back or starts over. He’s someone who keeps moving ahead. You have to admire that.

(Sometimes your father watches you. The weight of his gaze on your person is discomfiting.

His eyes are sad.)

In college, you no longer deal with Sky’s various affairs or Lucia’s scheming plans. You’re freer, and it helps that intercolor tension mostly cools off after high school. Celeste and Tanner disappear into the dusty pages of your past as Russell, Sapphire, and Chester enter your life. There are the triplets Azuline, Azura, and Azure who love to steal your pens at esoteric hours of the day. Indigo, who saved a seat for you at a lecture the other day, smiles shyly every time he sees you.

But the person who captures your attention is your roommate, Hazel.

“Don’t call me that,” she says wryly. “Horrible, horrible name. Call me Quill.”

Quill because she has a tendency to collect bird feathers. Quill because she’s an English major (what that has to do with anything, you don’t know). Quill because it rhymes with “Brill,” her favorite word to use and to say.

“An abbreviated way of saying ‘brilliant,’ and because I can,” is her explanation.

She tends to cram her lanky form into a chair before her laptop, typing furiously and often working on her so-called Thesis of Life, her magnum opus. Her space is surrounded by stacks of books and lollipop wrappers that you find yourself picking up if only to clear some of the clutter in the dorm. You try at least once a day to sneak a peek at her Thesis except she mostly waves you away with airy hands and distracts you with one of the many lollipops lying around.

So you never get a chance to look at her Thesis, but you know that it’s about intercolorism. It’s evident by the way she calls out to you, “You realize that your soul mate could have been born in any time period? Any time period?”

“Well, no—”

“He could have been Shakespeare, for all we know.”

“I don’t really like him,” you admit, “and you know, my eyes turned brown when I was three.”

“Technicalities,” and she waves away your protests.

You think it’s rather bad form to wave away anything that doesn’t quite agree with your idea of the world, but you only mention it once to Quill. She laughs at that. She always laughs whenever you think you’ve said something particularly insightful—not because she disagrees, but because of your “ridiculously serious expression whenever you look at me like that.” Quill’s rather cruel in her own way and she’s also bad at taking criticism, but she can be eccentric and haughty and fun when she wants to be.

She’s lounging in her chair as usual, lollipop in mouth, when she says in a muffled voice, “Indigo’s interested in you.”

You look up from your textbook. “What?”

She shrugs and continues casually, “He’s interested in you.”


“You should try to be happy.”

“And what would make me happy?” you say, shutting your textbook with more force than intended.

Again, she shrugs. “Some people don’t form relationships because they don’t want to. Some don’t because they’re afraid of how they might be changed. There’s more, but that’s not important. Figure out which category you belong to and straighten yourself out.”

She sounds so much like your father that you pick up your textbook and wordlessly leave for the quieter confines of the closest library.

The Indigo thing doesn’t end up going anywhere. Indigo’s eyes slowly pass over you to another girl and you’re only a little sorry that your unresponsiveness caused him to give up. But you sit in the library more and more often, turning over the words of your father and Quill in your head, and you buy an expensive box of chocolates and a whimsically feathered hat for Quill on her birthday. It’s an apology and a celebration, but also a distraction.

Her smile is brilliant. “Brill,” she says, patting your shoulder.

Quill never does try to nudge you toward other people again, and you forget about the incident for the most part. Meanwhile, a Dirt is beaten up on campus, her injuries so severe that her parents pull her out of the university.

A week later, three students with blue eyes are attacked, all in rapid succession.

The bigger cracks are mended, but you watch the smaller ones and wonder what to make of them.

Azura’s eyes turn brown on a Tuesday.

She and her sisters immediately quarantine themselves in her room for the rest of the day. Her roommate, Amber, camps out in your dorm. Luckily, she has a loose tongue that loosens even further with an eager audience, and she tells you all about how Azura had locked herself in the bathroom before her sisters had been able to coax her out. You want to think about how distraught Azura must be, how her sisters might have trouble comforting her because they won’t get it, and how this will change everything for her.

But instead, you think that at least now you’ll be able to tell her apart from Azuline and Azure.

“That’s an insensitive thought,” Quill replies, seemingly amused. She’s easily amused, really, as if she’s some upper-class lady in a classical novel, laughing at the antics and failures of the lower-class cretins. Cruel as usual. (Does this make you the lower-class cretin?)

“Maybe,” you concede, “but I’m not very sympathetic. I don’t think you are either.”

“Brill, Sienna. Looks like I’ve taught you something after all.”

“Hey,” you protest, sitting up in your bed to glare at Quill across the room, “I’m not stupid.”

“No, but you’re very earnest. Good for you.”

“I just… You know this is going to change everything for her.”

“I wouldn’t know,” is the breezy response. She rolls over in her bed to blink at you, and you shake your head, wondering at it all.

There’s a moment of silence, and you consider starting on some work that you really need to get done when Quill says, in a more subdued voice, “She’s the eldest, you know.”

“By what, five seconds?”

“Oh Sienna,” Quill sighs, “what am I going to do with you?”

You remember the “BS,” still on the underside of the table at your parents’ house, and you realize that you don’t know what you’re going to do with yourself either. It’s not a very startling realization, less startling than it is hilarious for how it changes nothing.

Azura’s eyes are swollen when she finally emerges from her room to attend classes. You say a few consoling words to her and watch as she struggles to brave a different sort of life from the one she’s used to. But you know that you will not see everything.

So life goes on and you mingle with people whose lives barely touch your own. C’est la vie.

“Finally,” Quill says when you ask about her story. You’re both sitting on the grass; Quill slouched against a tree and tip-tapping away on her laptop, and you lying on your stomach with a book in your hand. It’s about a dystopian society with a corrupt government and struggling protagonist, the works. You’ve already lost interest, but you feign reading anyway so that Quill won’t be disappointed. She’s the one who gave you the book in the first place.

“There’s not much to say,” she muses thoughtfully, not even bothering to look up at you.

Her unwillingness doesn’t deter you. “How did you meet?” you press on, almost doggedly.

“Accidentally.” Her eyes skim over you for a moment. “It’s hardly worth recounting.” She pauses deliberately. The sunlight falls on her face and reveals shadows, contrasts, and secrets written on her skin. “I met him when I ran away from home.”

That sounds like a story worth recounting, but you sense more. “So what happened?”

“I met him, had a nice chat about the logistics of the universe, and then left because I didn’t feel like being a runaway for much longer.”

Quill is a woman of detail. “You left him?”

“I did, and without looking back.”

“Why?” The words spill out of your mouth. “Didn’t you feel anything for him? Didn’t it mean anything to you? He’s your soul mate. How could you hurt him like that? How could you hurt yourself?”

Her glance is scathing and her voice even more so as Quill says sharply, “I hurt no one, least of all myself.” She waits for you to settle down and you eventually do, albeit somewhat mutinously. She painstakingly softens her voice as she answers, “I didn’t feel anything for him during that short moment. How could I?”


“Oh, they’ve brainwashed you.” She lowers her gaze, smirking to herself. But she tells you gently, “A soul mate means as much as you want him to mean. And to me, he means almost nothing.” When it’s apparent that you don’t understand, she shakes her head and ends the conversation with these final words: “The connection’s there, but the love has to be grown.”

As always.

You mull over her words for a few weeks. Quill has always been expert in switching between the obvious and the subtle. But eventually you hear the unspoken and you stretch yourself on another grassy field at a later date, lazily eyeing the clouds that pass by.

You close your eyes and think of the people you have buried in the past; your parents, your sister, Sky, Celeste, Tanner. And inexplicably, you wish for one of your father’s articles to pore over and reread, just once more.

Maybe, you think, it’s possible to live as though soul mates aren’t even a subject to consider—

—and be happy.

(Now that’s a thought. Happiness.)