by Amberli Chiang
Art by Katherine S. Li
Issue: Metanoia (Winter 2017)
My grandmother watches me string a necklace out of red beads on the kitchen table. Like pebbles, the beads make a path on the glass-covered wood. Underneath I see photos of myself at various ages: my disastrous bangs, my photo with my cousins, my face next to a mountain of uneaten food at Hometown Buffet. Across the table from me, my grandma eats rice and baby bok choy in a blue bowl.
“That’s so nice, June,” she says. “Do you enjoy making necklaces?”
“The most important thing to do in your life is to have fun. Ni zhi you yi ge ming,” she says. You only have one life.
Raising my head, I gazed up at the tall brown cabinets. Glossy with finish, the strong wooden panels stretched all the way up to the ceiling, each running to the ends of each wall. The lights from above bounced off the cabinets and onto the glass panels that reflected my little face, which was no doubt flushed red from running all over the house. My hair was spread out across my face like a mop. One pigtail was higher than the other, which looked like a fountain that had fallen over on its side. My pink vest bulged over my gumball-machine-print turtleneck. Shaking off my vest, I pulled open each drawer of the cabinet, looking for the small round colorful beads that I wasn’t supposed to touch.
Grabbing the large container from the top shelf, I teetered as the heavy box threatened to tip me over. Swaying this way and that, my arms finally gave in, the box and I falling to the floor with crashing and skittering sounds. Now on the ground, I lay among an assortment of beads. They always mesmerized me. There were so many different shapes and sizes. Colors like these shouldn’t have gone together, but they did. My four-year old self imagined the happiness I could have if only I could put the beads together.
Slowly, I pulled out a couple of the neon green beads. Banging them together, I tried to make them stick, but the magical fairy dust I imagined that would fall from the sky and turn the beads into a bracelet never materialized.
“Once you figure out what you want, then you can imagine it, and it will magically show itself,” my grandmother says.
Plucking red beads out of the bin, I try to select the curvy ones. To string them on, I have to work until the bead goes onto the string, a tedious process.
“But what if I have a hard time envisioning?” I ask.
After she swallows a mouthful of bok choy, she says, “Just keep trying.”
When I was five, my parents took me to Disneyland, where I desperately hoped to find a bottle of fairy dust. At the giftshop, I didn’t see any, only a neon green Tinker Bell beaded bracelet, which I pleaded for instead.
“We won’t buy it for you, but we’ll help you make one when we get home,” my mother consoled.
After the trip, my mom helped me make my Tinker Bell bracelet, and I wore it everywhere. From then on, my biggest dream was to become Tinker Bell. Tiny, shiny, and green, she flew all around the stage at Disneyland, sometimes just a streak across the sky.
As I grew older, I realized that I couldn’t be Tinker Bell, and that I would never speed across the sky or anything else—unless I was skating. While on the ice, I felt the wind in my ears, my feet almost off the ground, as if I were floating. I skated around, happy that I could. But my best friend at the time, Jessica, complained, “Why’re you so slow, Tinker Bell?” After that, I always pictured an empty rink, where I could do whatever I wanted, be alone in my own sky, my own zamboni machine to clear the ice, making it a clean slate no matter how many times I fell. Just get up and fly away like Tinker Bell.
“What if I imagine a world that is unattainable? What about that?” I ask.
When I was 10, in the fifth grade, I wanted to study piano under Mr. Batinsky because he was one of the best pianists in the world. Hearing him play was like visiting another dimension, where the audience never fell asleep. He taught my friend, Melissa, who won the Carnegie Hall Concerto Competition in 2009. A balding, grey-haired man, who only allowed photos of himself while he wore a tuxedo, Mr. Batinsky was my ticket to an amazing music career. He, I thought, was my passkey into Juilliard.
At the time, my piano teacher, Ms. Sharov, was more interested in her iPhone than teaching me how to phrase a line effectively. I’d sit at her piano, playing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 10 inside the living room of her one-story house, the sunlight glaring through the window onto my face. The doors were constantly opening and closing, as if she lived in a busy train car with people coming and going. Her house smelled of cabbage, as if her stove perpetually boiled a pot of borscht. I didn’t feel as if I were learning piano; I felt as if I should be waiting tables in the restaurant of her home.
She would say, “June, play that again until it’s perfect. I don’t want to hear any mistakes.” Even though I made no mistakes, I’d play it again and dream. In my dream, I’d be on a stage wearing Oscar de la Renta’s embroidered red floral gown and a thin gold handmade bracelet as I sat on the bench. I’d feel as if I’d conquered the world. The concert hall would be my subjects and I’d be the queen. I would rise up above the audience, my body still playing, but my mind watching from high above. I’d be so close to the audience, but somehow this vision soon became disconnected by the smell of Borscht and the sound of my teacher saying, “One more time” while her nails clacked on the screen of her cell phone.
“What if I’m always left disappointed. Is it better to just avoid dreaming at all?” The string frays on my beads, and I have to tape it.
“You have to take chances in life. You need to dream, or you won’t get anywhere,” my grandma says. “Zai ni de meng xiang shi xian zhi qian, ni xu yao xian you meng xiang.”
You have to imagine before your ideas can become reality.
After receiving a letter from Mr. Batinsky informing me that he already had too many students, I replaced my dreams of piano superstardom with my fantasies about Roderick Stevens.
At lunch, Roderick sat at the junior table, while I sat below on the lowly freshman grass. From my vantage point, he looked like one of the greasers from the movie The Outsiders that Ms. Yamaguchi made us watch in seventh grade. At the time I had already checked out and read all the romance books in the library, so many that the librarian started giving me knowing looks whenever I approached. In these books, I often encountered the person I imagined Roderick to be: a tall, dark-haired, mysterious, but kind-hearted individual, who would, of course be a great kisser, and couldn’t say a mean thing to save his life. He would be Heathcliff, dark and misunderstood. He would be Mr. Darcy, handsome and intelligent. I imagined a future with Roderick, in our loft condominium in Brooklyn, one with big windows and exposed brick walls. We’d have an island bar where we’d eat our pancake breakfasts and discuss the difference between our impressions and our ideas, as Hume once pondered. Roderick would say, “I think Hume was right. What we see is the real world, and our memories cannot trusted. They are just ideas.” And I would stare at him because his words were so deep and awesome.
It wasn’t until our third date when I realized Roderick was no Heathcliff. We were eating pad thai at Chuck’s Noodles, and Roderick asked, “Can I copy your answers for English class?” His voice had a nasally twinge that I’d never noticed before and his words were oddly slow and truncated, as if enunciating entire words was not worth the effort.
I finished chewing a mouthful of noodles and cabbage. “They’re personal questions, short answer. You can’t copy them.”
“What do you mean? I don’t get it.” A piece of cilantro covered his front tooth.
“Do them yourself.”
“What are you hiding from me? Didn’t you say what’s yours is mine? Did you like…just randomly write words? Why won’t you show me?” It felt as if he was saying that I was secretly dumb.
And on a dime, my dream shattered. Mr. Darcy died. Heathcliff fell off his horse and rolled off the edge of a cliff. It was true—I was destined to live my days alone in a dark, forlorn, cold loft apartment, with my only companion the spiders that would no doubt find their way into the corners that I couldn’t reach. Love, I thought, was the answer to all unfulfilled wants.
“Roderick, I’m fed up with you.” I pushed my half-eaten bowl of noodles aside and strode out of the restaurant, leaving him alone. I’d only been dating him for a month, but part of me imagined him chasing after me, begging me not to go, but I realized that my dream could not be dependent on someone else. Rather, it had to be something that I created and accomplished myself.
I couldn’t count on Mr. Batinsky or Roderick or even Tinker Bell to make magic happen in my life. All I had was me, myself, and I.
I gave my grandmother a red and black necklace.
“You should keep it. You worked so hard,” my grandmother says.
“No, no, you keep it. It’s for you.”
“What do the colors mean?” my grandmother wants to know.
“Black is the color of independence, and red is the color of love that I hope to find,” I say.
“Well, then you should have it.”
“No,” I explain. “I’ll make my own.”