by Alisa Lu
Art by Cynthia Shi
Issue: Phosphene (Summer 2019)
酸甜。Bittersweet, is what they called it.
Summer was reminiscent of the light scent of sunscreen that clung to my cheeks, the burnt musk of construction work, and citrus fruits. It was the sweet flavor of lemonade on my taste buds, the lingering smell of mandarin peels, and the sticky juice on my hands from peeling grapefruits that saved me from overheating in the 105-degree weather.
It was the same every summer. And every summer, when I woke up at 12 pm, still in my pajamas, long after she left for work, I would find an inviting platter of grapefruits, as if they were in full bloom, awaiting me, telling me to come and eat.
A light breeze wafted in from the window. The dappled light and sheet music danced with the soft wind. I plucked at the grapefruits on the platter and popped them into my mouth as my fingers skipped across the fragile electronic keyboard. I remember the small old man we got our keyboard from, sitting in front of his gray house, pieces of binder paper that were supposed to be price tags flapping wildly, only a small piece of tape keeping them attached to the objects they represented. The keyboard was dirt-crusted but not dusty—I was beckoned to play, to make music.
At times my fingers, and consequently the keyboard, became too sticky. I would wipe them with Klorax wipes. Did I care that she said it was bad for the keyboard, that the smell of chemicals was bad for me? Not really.
It was the same every day. And every day, when I woke up at 12 pm, still in my pajamas, long after she left for work, I would play the piano, in all its glory with its 61 monochromic keys. Come play! But I don’t think I loved it as well as that old man we bought it from.
When she got home at 7, she told me to come and play for her. Sometimes I’d happily rehearse whatever I had been practicing, other times I’d hide in my room. But as time passed, I would glare angrily at the keyboard. I would glare at the “C D E F G A B” tape labels that were peeling off, glare at my stupid fingers, and I would channel all of my hatred into each discordant bang that came, angry that the stupid electronic keyboard couldn’t go any louder than the maximum setting on the knob.
She said that I was getting better! That I was learning! That the piece sounded like music to her ears! That all the time I was spending on those computer games had surely helped me improve!
It was the same every summer. Yelling. Spilled grapefruits. Sticky juice clinging to the walls, left out to dry on flowery platters, yelling. The bang of the keyboard, a slap, yelling.
The summer after senior year was when I thought it’d be different. I said my goodbyes to my home, my keyboard, her. She drove me there, the whole 982 miles. I remember the heat trapped inside the car, the blur of the scenery, and the relief of bathroom breaks, not for the bathroom, but for the salvation of sitting up and airing out my sweat. But mostly, I slept and carried boxes. Lots of boxes.
You’d think that 982 miles away from home, it would be different. It was, in some ways.
I dragged myself downstairs, in my pajamas, at 12 am. A sad gray curtain hung above the living room read Welcome to the Waterloo dorm! There was a group of people playing console games on the TV, another playing cards. Others stood cautiously to the edge, and I assumed that they were there for the same reason as me—free food. The heavy rain tapped restlessly on the window. A whooping yell erupted from near the center of the room, but I could only hear the sound of rain and a constant ringing in my ears.
Swoop in, take the food, go back to my room, take a painkiller.
Among all the food items, my eyes skipped between a blooming platter of grapefruit and a pitcher of lemonade. Maybe it was the pounding upbeat music that they played, or perhaps the homesickness kicking in already, but it was the first time I felt alone, even though I had been every summer before. But before, it was different. She was there. The grapefruit. The keyboard. She sliced them up for me. She tried to live through my success. The ground beneath me absorbed my tears, into the grapefruit’s roots, into its vibrant petals. I plucked them off the platter.
酸甜。Bittersweet, is what they called it.