Ria Chaudhary | Art by Cindy He
“Well, you never really leave.”
You barely look up, my eyes following you side to side, book to box and back again. “No, I booked my tickets. I’m definitely leaving.”
“You know what I mean! It’s like, you can leave physically, but you’ll always have a home here.” I flinch as the word comes out of my mouth; you have told me time and time again how much you hate it here, how home is your least favorite collection of letters. I do not understand why. Asking you is a risk I refuse to take. .
Your laugh comes out as more of a breath, and your bitterness tastes rancid on my tongue. “Sure. If you’re such an expert, tell me why I still feel terrible.”
I don’t know the answer, but I guess you already knew that. We sit in silence, me staring at my chipped nail polish and your dad’s favorite record playing in the background. “It’s okay. You wouldn’t get it,” you say, head bent over the next cardboard box. I wonder if your parents ever taught you the word sorry, if my therapist was right: we accept the blame we think we deserve. I wonder if you believe you are blameless, how that lie is propped up on branches of support: your mother, your father, your beautiful friends. I wonder how the branches have held up through the years. I wonder if they’re starting to crack.
I breathe in, and peace comes with the price of a mouthful of pollen. The oak tree outside your window triggers my allergies every time, but I don’t dare close the window. Why cut off my oxygen when your bright pink walls are already suffocating? “Ugh, at least I don’t have to look at this color anymore.” I can feel your eyes on my back, waiting for my response. “You know, I chose it when I was 8? I was so stupid.”
I muster up the energy to smile, eyes fixated on the road outside. “Your room is so pretty though.” Your eyes are locked on me, burning the back of my sweatshirt.
“You don’t have to lie, you know. I wish I painted it when I was older, like you did. Your room is a human color.”
I look up at you, tilt my head. “Grey is not a human color.” Your walls dulled out over the years, and you told me how your father painted over it time and time again only for the pink to shine through underneath. My walls are single layered, choices made by a girl who was not quite whimsical enough to be a kid. I don’t know what will happen to my rental room when I leave. I don’t have the heart to ask.
You go back to your rhythm, consistent and calm, and I go back to the window. The leaves spring to life under my watchful eye, and I see your stories; climbing in and out, old drafts of you like animated ghosts lining its branches. You broke your leg falling off, I remember you saying, when it was first growing. Your mom planted it when you were born. The roses in the backyard of my childhood home were uprooted when we moved out. I wonder what will happen to your tree.
I hope they keep it up. It’s nothing short of a miracle, your family tree, growing green in the summer and huddling warm in the winter. I know by heart more than sight that its roots grow deep, burrowing through your overgrown lawn and under the porch where we captured time. My roots are shallow, wary of diving too deep. History has taught them well.
The air is thick with heat, and I nod along to the music that drowns out your sorrow song. You lament the way your lawn looks, that your tree sheds leaves into your room, and when I fail to respond, you tell me to live in the present and not the future. I do not tell you that I am living in the past, thinking about the pieces of myself I planted deep in other cities, with other friends. They are lost now. Whether they will ever be found is up to the whims of weather and whether I remember to visit.
My mother always tells me I stay away too long, accusing me of being ashamed. I do not tell her I am a guest in her home more than I am in yours. She has never seen the photo of us your father hung in the foyer, wreckage and foliage side to side. I know I don’t fit in alongside your brightly colored family. I love him for pretending. Normally I play along, smile and nod til my face aches, but today the sight makes me sick to the stomach. I leave before your mother can invite me to stay over for dinner, really, it’s no problem.
I drag my limping soul to another front door.
You are not next to me as I stand still in the house I’ll call home for today, and stare into the bathroom mirror. The girl in there reaches out to me, brushes my hand. She is cold to the touch, silent eyes, but can you blame her? Her color ran out in November 2016, and the details of her face are tucked into closets in cities that seem centuries away. She does not need calendars or cameras, her mirror is a map of her life story. Our mouths open and we ask each other why, why, why we thought we could hold on, trap nostalgia in a mailing address, why we did not leave a return stamp.
I know now, that sentiment turns to sediment and memories become dust, that the more often you leave the less you have left. But I am here, and my brother is in the living room, and there is an old photo newly stuck to the fridge. I stare at the girl I left behind, bright and technicolor. She is gone and I am her memory, and I am sorry for you, because I know you never got to meet her. I know you will relate to me soon enough.
The girl in the photo stays in my carryon, tucked into my wallet. I want to believe that she and I are one and the same, though every passerby can see the truth: she is still a masterpiece and I am nothing more than a bundle of lines.