Remember we first shook hands the day after my third birthday candle fizzled out in a greasy lipped Dixie cup? You arrived unapologetic, stranger cloaked in night, uninvited on my doorstep, painting my pulse with foreign fingernails insisting we were now and forever. Before then, you were just another passing name. As I spun to catch a glimpse of your figure, the curls of your golden locks made me sneeze when we would connect for just a moment, your hair an accidental bridge of my nose. Always though, you blurred into the puddle of shifting background extras. I watched your penciled outline scatter into marching ants, to morse code, a fading ringing. The salty ghost of a phantom fish weighing on an old fisherman’s memory. In isolation I recognized your form. I knew you came in quick flashes, flirting, fluttering steps that outpaced mine. My fingers squeaked out angels in your wake, on windows clouded by the foggy vapor left residue in your exhale. I built these imaginations about how you would look when you took shape behind a summary of eyes, nose, and lips; what I could explore when I could read the meaning behind a wealth of hieroglyphics scraped into my skin, collateral damage from your chaotic storm of slants and circles.
That chaos cut me the first time. They were too sharp for me to hold and I tried to take it in all at once. I could gorge my mouth full with toothpicks until my cheeks rubbed red, raw, and I puked it all out in a burning tangle of stomach acid and thin saliva. Forgive me, I wasn’t expecting you to be so jagged. Forgive me, I wasn’t expecting you to look like that.
Still, I dulled you with use. The watery borders of your glacial gaze couldn’t resist teasing sweet soil and with every rendezvous, you softened more into coffee. I acquired the taste. Though the sharper things that soon protruded into our life forced me to drink faster. For better or for worse, I took you across the world—no—you carried me there. I clung to you and you, my first frontier, became the only indicator of familiarity. No ghost of a pinch stings as much when a fresh blow lands harder and I ventured closer still to you after I realized how much you resembled home. You were unabashed, unashamed, and universal. Everybody in a restaurant always knew what you had ordered because that volume was one of a kind. You didn’t do that weird talking-around-what-you-really-thought social gymnastics routine. You didn’t bubble wrap yourself in a cloudy insulation of politeness, breading your voice in Stevia.
Of course, once I had stopped freezing, I began to complain it was too hot. Sometimes I wish you knew when to stop. Your voice didn’t diminuendo even after the menu slipped back into the waitresses hands. You weren’t protected by bubble wrap, but something less evolved. I hated your mucus membrane carcass, unswallowing from the split of Dad’s lips. Call it premature birth, you were determined to come out half baked.
And half-baked, you collapsed, a hideous amalgam of repulsive and ruined.
I complained about how Mom dressed you so strangely. She mangled your identity, laced it with Chinese. She sleeved you in oversized things that didn’t suit your skin tone and turned you yellow. Your skin gathered too large, pruned trying to contact your body, and you looked puckered and wrinkled and sour.
Why couldn’t you just stay hidden when I told you to be quiet? I couldn’t do anything about the fact that you had no care about how you looked, you only carried a swollen desperation to be seen. Effort bathed you in glistening sweat and the stench of a foreigner. You branded us with your odor, marked us all for slaughter. I tried to slow down your eventual degradation. But I guess it’s unavoidable that friends take on a little of each other when time intertwines their identities so much they accidentally forget where their own borders end. So part of me bled into you, crossed paths colored, distorted, and kaleidoscoped. I was a little bug, permanently encoded. That also made you a little bug in me. You showed me where I glitched so a part of me will never be able to step resenting you. Darkness to balance out the light I guess. Pith pretties the pulp. How could I help it? You were the one who chased Dad away. Two irreconcilable universes, a box that could never be checked, you claimed your space and he could not enter. At least at first the hate was guileless, because then I discovered the frog I had kissed was actually a prince.
Greed is what made me carve out your insides and cast a mold of your shell. I turned you ornamental, mass manufactured you into counterfeit Gucci or spray painted Dollar Tree plastic utensils. I tried to sell your soul for some validation of my worth. And it’s really true, how the thing you’re looking for hardest is never home. I can complain about how ugly Mom liked to fashion you, and I can sit here forever trying to understand why you didn’t hate it. For two eternities I can wonder what went wrong when I tried to brush on a face for you. Why you reacted to the mascara like searing tar. Why you bit your lip and let the red amber flood over a space I had already filled. Mom’s intentions were pure while I was trying to gentrify your value so I could collect a little more tax from my friends when they landed on my Monopoly square. Can you understand though? I kept seeing you in somebody else’s picture. In those frames your eyes were cattier, smile rosier, nose always a little more upturned. Of course those things came from the inside like “true inner beauty which always shines through.” I know, I had seen the glow from that “true inner beauty” myself once. I knew what I was doing, trying to recreate the you that had left me. It takes less than nine minutes for light to run 93 million miles barefoot from the sun to meet Earth, through blistering cold and absolute darkness. But it takes one second to turn on this incandescent lightbulb as a temporary silencer of the dark. I haven’t forgotten what it was like though.
You had rules that we broke together and on Saturdays we would indulge in just a taste. When we rolled our coins together, we could share a vanilla cone from the Rite Aid. I taught you how to Chinese squat on the curb and we hung there alternating licks, your tongue and my tongue against the same waffle plane, wafting away the scent of stale ibuprofen and old people, catching the drops before they darkened our dresses, grooming our sticky fingers like cats. And then I started breaking all of them on my own. I gorged on Mondays too, cut holes in your pockets and picked up the coins on the floor. You stayed silent, unable to refuse because you had always been putty in my hands. But as we grew you stepped out of the mold we all come in as kids. And one day I realized I never learned how to shape you. So you peeked through the gaps in my grasp, and I watch you exit, soaking into the ground as my teeth rotted, cheek against the dirt trying to siphon you back. I thought I was smart enough to cast away commas and periods. I didn’t need pauses, I didn’t need anyone to tell me where to end. When I broke your rules I turned into a glutton, turned senseless, turned demanding.
Why don’t you crease neatly into pretty little lullabies? Why don’t you igneous to obsidian in my fist, ready to wound? We became North and North. Standing on the same iceberg but we had realigned, now repellant.
Still, is it wrong that I felt betrayed? I thought you were mine. You failed me when I was screaming for you between the towering aisles of Costco. When you didn’t answer any of my calls and I didn’t know how to begin searching, you left me with myself and two sets of unbroken teeth that sealed a tomb. And that very same day I read about you somewhere, that you were with him. Then I recall seeing you on someone’s Snapchat story yesterday, a smug smile in the corner, flirting with the boundary of perception. You know I saw you. Where will you go tomorrow? You will both be giggling for sure. It feels like you’re trying to flee from me and I’m trying to remind you of those days where we first learned how to walk together, polyurethane on the hardwood floor unglazing into the slanted cuts in our knees. That stream we carved and filled from our own iodine fountains, the one we pinky-promise-swear-on-our-life and martyred our pigtails for, can you still find it?
I know I have abused you but I can’t take back the fact that all my soliloquies have turned Titanic in your eyes. This is not a perennial insurrection. You read me like nobody else, devouring. I can’t read anyone else, starving. I pray you aren’t one of those childhood friends that falls away with Post-it Notes on paper bag lunches. And if you are, I pray that this is one of those cheesy high school movies we used to burn our popcorn watching, utterly hypnotized, words clogged behind anticipation for the girl who has returned ten years later to once again meet her long lost best friend.
So I hold out hope that this letter finds you at the address where I last remember leaving you because I keep using “I” too much when I tend to forget everything everyone else has done. And yet, worn stranger, though you first showed up to take nobody’s outreached hand, I have never stopped calling you home.
Annie Chen is a full-time senioritis machine at South High School in Torrance, California. She has won two medals and several keys in the Scholastic Art and Writing awards and been recognized by the PTA Reflections contest. Her idea of a perfect day is cooking all types of ethnic foods while dancing to 70s/80s happy jams and or getting Uber-ed to different places by all her friends who can drive.