Best of the Net 2019 Nomination
The earsplitting honking of a car horn jolted Lin to reality. He woke up rather abruptly, and immediately wished he had stayed asleep. It was a cold, unforgiving February morning, and the bitter chill of his two-and-a-half-room apartment made him dearly desire to return to his dreams. He had been dreaming about something he could not quite remember, and was fading already. He could faintly recall the sound of distant but unrestrained laughter, and words being spoken in rapid, lilting Chinese, but when he tried to grasp at the precise words, they disappeared entirely. The warm feeling of vague content in his chest disappeared quickly. He sat up in his barebacked bed. His furniture was plain and unobtrusive, wooden surfaces kept free of dust, though always retaining a sort of shabby, run-down appearance with the flaking layers and wood chips coming off. He kept his things in organized shelves, clothes folded neatly in his drawer. His white walls were peeling, revealing a decaying yellow beneath.
Lin reached for his beaten wrist-watch, his trusted shou biao, kept usually by his bed, but found only a new iPhone, glossy and screen unmarred by many touches. He had thrown the watch away last night. He tentatively touched the home-screen button; his unwashed fingers left small swipes of oil on the ivory steel. The time flashed: 7:30. The cacophony of New York City traffic was in full motion, and time was fast ticking to begin another day.
Lin was disconcerted at his late wake-up; he wondered why his alarm had not sounded. It was then that he realized it was Saturday, the week-end. He had no work nor activities today, he was free to do as he pleased. The freedom felt liberating and wonderful, but a faint sense of discomfort still persisted in him as he went through the motions of his morning routine. Was it something about the dream? As he pulled on his plain black crew neck, he realized something else. He pulled out his new phone to check, cautious not to blemish the screen. Again, he was greeted with the time, and he found his thoughts confirmed. It was February 8th, the first day of the Lunar Calendar- Chinese New Year.
On second thought, he realized, it was also the day he arrived in America fifteen years ago, eyes shining with stars and hopes swollen like a balloon, a student- an immigrant.
Lin did not know how to celebrate this occasion. Every Chinese New Year he would call his family, talk, fill the silence with jovial, though false words, and the ritual did not bother him for long. It was a necessary thing after all. But something felt different this year- tenser, sadder. It was something he had realized for a long time, but did not want to admit. It manifested as a sinking stone in the bottom of his heart.
He glanced again at the iPhone, 8:00. It was time to leave and buy breakfast. Lin pulled on his gray slacks and trench coat, which was, as he had told his mother on the phone, J Crew, jay-croo, and as he did, he caught sight of himself in the mirror. He had his ancestors’ single lidded eyes, and his father’s rotund face. His face was lined with many years; he was not as young and sanguine as he once was. The stone dug a little deeper. He turned away.
The street outside was delightfully busy. On the sidewalks, in the cars, diving in and out of buildings, people were crowded everywhere, cheeks flushed rosy hues against pale skin. Peals of laughter seemed to resonate from every corner, but Lin was not included. It was a chilly, wintry day. The sidewalk was covered with formerly white snow turned gray, wet slush. The tall concrete buildings loomed above like sentries, bright sunlight reflected off their glass windows in glaring kaleidoscopes. They scraped against the sky, looming officials observing their domain with cold, critical eyes.
Lin halted. For a moment, he was strangely unsettled by the scene, which he should not have been. He had been living here for fifteen years after all; he was an American. He regained traction, mentally scolding himself at his paralysis.
Fifteen years ago on this same day, Lin had felt the same strange feeling, of nausea, of dizziness, of irrational fear. That had been when he first stepped off the plane from his native country, zhong guo, into a blindingly lit airport, pristine and with cream-paved walkways, and thousands of warm, vibrant people, of all shapes and sizes. His eyes had blurred with moisture, whether from happiness or sorrow he still did not know. In that moment, he had seen himself, seen into the future, as if transported there in spirit: he was confident and proud, traversing the city’s path with polished leather steps of purpose, of belonging. Back then and now, fifteen years later and endlessly older, he straightened his back, put a self-assured tempo into his feet even as his hands shook, and began to walk at a brisk tempo.
He could still not stop thinking.
He was thinking about his family. Lin wondered what they were doing right now, halfway across the world in a different time, different culture. The first day of Chinese New Year, the chun jie. It was late evening there, but the twilight would be held at bay by the ambient velvet glow of swaying paper lanterns hung in the doorways. His father’s wrinkles would have vanished into the soft light and the content haze of sake, and he would sing folk songs, nonsensical things, until his deep, baritone voice was gone. His mother would be making jiao zi and chun juan, smiling endearingly at his little sister, Jing, who would always hop onto the countertop and sample the dishes, which were only made more tender by the tantalizing heat that came with coming fresh out of the pot. Lin had not thought about this old tradition for a long time, but he could still see it as clearly as if he was still fourteen and flushed, asking Jing to give him have a piece as well. With a jolt, he realized that the little girl in his mind was grown now, with two children and a husband of her own. Perhaps she was celebrating the same way now, with her new family, in Xi’An.
The last time he had visited China, five years ago, it had been for her marriage. The room was balmy and had a filtered sepia complexion. Her husband was short and plain and wore traditional garb. She had been dressed in red and gold hues, with an array of glimmering pearls and jewelry decorating her bodice. Her hair had been twisted up into an elegant, though simple bun braided by his mother herself, and she had been laughing. Her smile was light and unrestrained. She had seemed happy.
Lin’s absent-minded steps had carried him to a familiar location. The neon yellow of the sign, illustrating a loopy M, would be jarring in his quiet hometown, but he was quite acquainted with it now; the city was constantly filled with lights and noise, and vivid, animated billboards at every corner. The models’ faces shone ethereal white like pearls, their eyes glittering with simulated diamonds. Today, they seemed all the more false, posed. He followed the stream of people, dressed in drab, muted colors like himself into the illuminated store. The rush of warmth was quite welcome to his body, for despite his heavy trench coat, he was freezing.
As Lin joined the line, he thought further about his family. The colorful scene he had conjured in his mind, he perceived, was likely not the case. His parents were old now: his father could not sing anymore, for his voice was raspy and spittle-filled, and his mother still cooked, but it did not taste quite as delicious and heat-filled as it had once before. There were no lively children to make paper lanterns, besides, there was no one who cared enough to hang them up. Even if by some miracle, he could take time off work to be able to return for the holiday, it would not be quite the same. Time, it seemed, was determined to make him suffer. Those fragile, vivid memories would only be crushed by the solemn image that was the truth.
An African-American teenage boy stood at the register. Barely looking up, he said: “What will it be sir?”
“Two Egg McMuffins, one medium coffee.”
He had practiced the inflection enough so there was no hint of his unpleasant accent, as if it was said by any American person off the street. He slid his credit card through the slot, it did not register.
“Again please, sir.”
His skin was as black as charcoal, but his eyes were a milky white. They stood out harshly against his dark skin. Lin dismissed those thoughts immediately. In this country, they were impolite. He slid his card through again, and this time it was authorized.
“Thank you very much,” he said, a bit hurriedly. The words
came out distorted and unclear. The boy did not notice, he had already moved on to the next customer. Lin’s pouched cheeks flushed, and he went to wait in the queue for his order. After he had received his brown bag, he walked outside again, for all the tables were taken by rowdy families and their children. The icy wind rushed against his coat and made him shudder.
He did not want to return to his apartment, which was equally as cold and unfriendly. As Lin walked along, with his bag of warm food turning cold fast, he supposed he could take a walk in the nearby park. He did not have anything he needed to attend to. The quiet feeling of wrongness that had permeated his being this entire morning began to rise up again, suffocating and unstoppable. It was like bitter peppermint, strong, brutally assaulting his senses.
When he had come to America, he was twenty-five. He was not the best in his class, but he was the best at English. He loved the West, with its modern technologies and loud, booming culture, much more than anything in his ugly native country, with dust-covered sidewalks, dust-polluted air, and people with dust-caked hearts. That was why his university professor had told him about the opportunity in New York City, niu yue, the heart of America, with its sprawling skyscrapers, golden windows illuminated through the night darkness signaling hopes, ambitions coming true by the millions. It meant leaving his family, his entire life behind, but he was willing. In China, he had a dull monotonous life ahead of him. He would marry a suitable Chinese girl, start a small family together, eke out a living amidst the dust, and sooner or later, he would die and be buried in the graveyard where his ancestors laid, yellow skin turning yellower.
In America, he thought, he had the world, and that was infinite.
But as the years dragged by, infinity began to seem much more brutally unceasing than he could have ever imagined. As Lin collapsed onto a park bench, and looked up at the cement buildings that towered up above him, he willed himself to, for the first time since he had come to this country, examine that painful mirror of time, its glass shards deceptively beautiful, yet excruciatingly sharp. He saw himself reflected in them, a pathetic, ashen figure who was undoubtedly alone. The lines etched onto his face spoke to him of the fifteen years past, and many more to come. It was too cold, too harsh to admit that this world was closing in on him the way two chilled hands would crush and wrap around his throat, slowly depriving him of oxygen.
And yet, he could not return. For the years had passed in China as well, and time had cruelly taken its toll on the memories he both repressed and needed- the glimpses of nostalgia, the echoes of old voices, and the constant, relentless pining for a past of which he could not return to. While Lin was busy chasing the sun in America, it had already set in his hometown, casting its scorching dusk over the people and places he remembered. Jing did not need him anymore, perhaps never needed him in the first place, and his parents were ailing and weak. They would be gone soon, under the ground, and then he would truly be alone, without a soul to turn to.
Tears filled his eyes, and he blinked them back in fear of being scorned by the other people in the park. He could swear it had been just days ago when he stepped off that plane, when he still subscribed to that momentum of youth, that boundless belief in life’s infinite, extensive time. Fifteen years had passed like lightning. The years had been difficult, but they had also been too fast, and perhaps that was the cruelest thing of all.
Lin clutched his iPhone in his hand; in the other, he took a bite of the greasy fast food. The sausage was too sweet, the dough too oily. He took another bite, it had already become tasteless and bland. The air was becoming colder, the day was disintegrating into dust. It was near noon; the park was filling up. Torrents of people walked past him endlessly, their faint conversations washing over him like tidal waves, never quite distinct enough to hear, but so close that he could make out the soft timbres of their voices. He felt himself becoming increasingly separated from the river of people that flowed so near, yet so impossibly distant. Thousands of miles and years away, across waters infinitely far, he suddenly felt a longing for those people whose blood, warm and thick, pulsed in his veins: those people whom he had already long severed ties with.
He craned his head back, resting it on the back of the cool bench, letting his lids roll shut. In his mind’s eye, Lin could see the Manhattan skyline dematerializing into the cloudy gray air, all the people’s voices twirling up into silver smoke, submitting to those merciless stars of time as slowly and surely as his ancestors’ graves rotted, decayed beneath his weary feet.
As of the Autumn 2018 publication of this piece, Rachel Dong was a high school sophomore at Greenwich Academy. She enjoys reading, writing, and listening to music. English is her favorite in-school subject, although she is also extremely interested in pursuing Psychology.