Tag: Sketch/Vignette (Page 2 of 7)

Sisterhood of summer

3 years old. Shallow waters, and big orange floaties encircling each arm. Our mothers sit pool-side while we splash and play. You’re a mermaid queen and I’m your daughter, your best friend, your handmaiden, your loyal subject. The sun burns bright above our dark-haired heads, and we squint as the sunscreen melts into our eyes.

12 years old. Dive-bombing into the deep end, and shrieking with laughter when the lifeguards whistle at us. Our mothers sit at home across the street, but they check in on us through the windows, as if their watchful gazes can save us from drowning. You’re Marco, and I’m Polo. We hunt for each other, eyes closed against the sting of chlorine.

29 years old. Seeking quiet and relaxation, but instead encountering neighbors I’ve never met before and don’t really care to know. The mothers complain loudly about kids who aren’t present. The red-faced men are drunk and showing off. You’re hundreds of miles away, probably sound asleep, while here I’m remembering the silky slither of aqua water around our young legs. My eyes gloss over, and the memories settle around me like the vast evening sky. 

Someday, I imagine, we will go swimming together again.

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Spirits, banquet, smoke

1.

A stout white tower rises from the mountainside. Sloping blue roof. Lotus fountains and twin temples at the base. We drive through the mist and into the heart of the mountain. Take an elevator up. We are greeted by long corridors of polished wooden cabinets, and the ocean-deep silence of the dead.

We seek my grandparents. We find them. My cousin unlocks a cabinet on the top row, and I can read my family’s name inside. Hello, A-ma. Hello, A-gong.

We speak without sound to the ashes of our loved ones. Their spirits listen. The language barrier doesn’t matter anymore, but still I wish I could offer something more than love and regrets expressed in the wrong tongue. Next time I will bring a note and leave it on the tiny golden shrine.

Next time it won’t be thirteen years since the last time.

2.

Tonight we are celebrating. Celebrating my marriage. Celebrating the long-awaited return of my mother to her homeland. Celebrating four generations and countless branches of family.

Looking around the room, I see my mother’s chin, my grandmother’s eyes, my grandfather’s nose. Pieces of myself echoed in the faces of people I hardly know but fiercely love. Their voices make a strange song, loud and lovely. Their laughter is like wine, loosening my thoughts and filling me with warmth.

The lazy susans spin with an abundance of food. Lightly fried frog legs, and fish simmered in a golden sauce. Gelatinous sea cucumber, and a steaming bowl of abalone soup. Fat pink prawns. Crisp green beans. Soft taro. Fresh-cut fruit. It’s an endless dance of dishes. I’m dizzy by the end.

3.

On Chinese New Year’s eve, we gather at my uncle’s house. My aunt has been chopping and stir-frying all day, and a savory steam fills the air. But before we sit down to eat, my mother leads me and my husband out to the living room. She hands each of us a slender stick of incense and then motions to the family altar. She wants us to bai bai.

My husband looks to me for guidance, but I’ve never done this before. I glance at the dark red lacquered wood, corners carved into dragons. The main shelf is crammed with sculpted buddhas and other deities. Red and jade and gold. There are fresh flowers, and two small urns with sticks of incense already burning. Smoke rises in thin, lazy drifts.

We step forward to light our incense, then press our palms together, trapping the incense in between. We bow our heads in prayer. I wonder what my husband is saying to my ancestors, or if he is speaking to his own.

That’s none of my business. I pull my focus back. I thank, and I ask, and I thank again. My hands rock back and forth, the glowing tip of the incense swaying with them. This is tradition. Foreign and familiar at the same time. Like my family. Like me.

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Salt, mountains, light

1.

Sizzle and scent. Warm, chewy layers of dough and oil. The salty notes of scallions.

I have dreamed of this. Literally and figuratively, I have dreamed of walking down the side street by my jiu jiu’s house and buying fresh cong you bing from a street vendor. Now we’re finally here, standing in the small crowd around the stall, waiting for our order to be filled.

I watch the woman spread a pancake over the flat round griddle. Little drifts of steam rise from the belly of her cart, and the dough hisses as it burns. She slides a spatula under the pancake and flips it. More hissing, more steam.

People press in close, talking loudly. I let the unfamiliar words sail over me. They melt into the voices of shoppers walking up and down the street, perusing the other stalls, and mingle with the low hum of traffic from the main avenue nearby.

When our pancakes are ready, the woman hands them to us, folded like crepes and wrapped in waxy paper. We take them back to my family’s dining table, and we bite into the moment of truth. As our tongues dive into flavor and texture, we can’t help smiling. 

It’s even better than I remember. Even better than I dreamed of.

2.

When we spot the “restaurant” and decide to give it a try, he is skeptical. The place is little more than a shack on the side of the mountain. A cinder block structure with no front wall, just wide cement patios and a roof of corrugated metal. The open-air kitchen is all stone and soot.

But he is too hungry and uncomfortable to protest, so we go in.

My yi zhang orders who-knows-what for everyone to share. While our food is being cooked, we find plastic chairs and wooden stools stacked in a corner, and we arrange them around a table for ourselves. Another group settles in — college students, maybe — and a pair of cyclists after that. Suddenly the place seems lively and warm, rather than shabby and strange.

We chat in a halting mix of Mandarin and English. We enjoy the breeze that blows in damp and green.

Dishes are brought to our table as soon as they are ready. Pork fried rice and three different kinds of vegetables, all homegrown nearby. The food is simple, unassuming, and delicious.

We eat ravenously. We devour the mountains.

3.

The night market begins with a bright red archway, which is doing its best impression of a Buddhist temple gate. But neon lights betray the imitation. Everything is flashy and loud, blaring against the ink-blue sky and the sleeping city.

Like a school of fish, we slowly shuffle along with the throng. Our eyes scan each booth, searching for a snack or a trinket that we might enjoy. Shoes, toys, cell phone cases. Stinky tofu, crab legs, oyster omelet. Eventually he settles on strawberry juice — fresh, but watery — and grilled corn on the cob with spicy sauce. I indulge in an egg tart, the custard creamy and rich on my tongue.

We came here to satisfy our appetites. Not just for food, but for life. For an experience we can taste, and take home in our hearts. So much has been out of our control — but this? This chaos is ours.

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Ice cream in Nashville

Dark night, bright parlor, long line. I step in and take my place behind all the couples and families. I am the only one here alone.

Flavors are handwritten on a chalkboard behind the counter. I scan the list, pick two I want to try, and then settle in for the wait. My hands are too full to check email, Twitter, or Facebook, like everyone else is doing. So I default to people-watching and eavesdropping. Common pastimes for a writer.

The girls behind me are trying water yoga tomorrow. One of them can’t swim. Another one is named Avery, and she has the best hair. Wavy and blonde, with a braid framing one side. All of them are stylish and thin, somehow managing to look both hipster and preppy at the same time.

There are a lot of maxi dresses in here.

It’s been a long day, but I’m avoiding my hotel room. I’d thought it would be wonderful to have a clean, quiet space to myself. Somewhere new but predictable. Somewhere without responsibilities.

Instead it feels lonely.

After checking in, I escaped to dinner. I chose a place that I had been to once before, years ago, with people I loved. But even the memories of them aren’t enough to keep me company tonight. I text one and call the other. It helps.

Finally it’s my turn, and I ask for wildberry lavender and “Buckeye State.” I like complementing fruity flavors with chocolate. When the cashier hands me the receipt, I accidentally sign in the wrong place. I feel like an idiot, but she just laughs. It’s a good reminder to find the humor in things.

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Some memories live in music

It’s funny what you remember and what you don’t. Like, why did Angie and I decide to drive around and take photographs of fancy houses? I have no idea. But I remember sunlight streaming through the windshield, and the weight of the old Nikon around my neck, and Natalie Imbruglia’s voice lilting over the speakers.

That day, that day, what a mess, what a marvel…

We parked in front of a two-story behemoth, all white stucco and Spanish clay. The high-arching trees of Tanglewood threw dappled light onto the road and across our bare arms. Our shoes shuffled down the sidewalks, skipped over puddles of yesterday’s rain. We photographed ourselves in the water’s murky reflection.

Every secret shared… Why do I drink the feelings dry?

My broken heart was finally mended. I had time, distance, perspective — and now a handsome friend texting me flirty messages. Angie’s heart was more freshly torn, and I ached for her. But we were together, muddling through the humid day, talking and not talking about the things that had hurt us so.

Everything wrong gonna be all right, come September…

This neighborhood seemed like a good place to dream about the lives we would lead someday. Safe behind wrought iron gates, happy in high-ceilinged homes. It was the future, full of possibility, still tinged with the past. The first boy I had seriously crushed on lived down one of these streets. Flame-colored hair, sea-colored eyes.

Tie a silver ribbon around the pieces that remain…

When we finished our rolls of film, we got back into the car and drove away. With the windows down, I let my hand float outside, fingers buffeted by the air. We sang at the top of our lungs.

Later, most of the pictures would turn out to be crap. Some memories can’t be developed in a darkroom or preserved behind plastic.

We slid the 4×6 prints into photo albums anyway.

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