Prose from the Fall 2021 edition of The Wellesley Review
In this section:
Soft Science by Laura Chin ’23
HOW TO MAKE EGGS FOR THE BEAUTIFUL PERSON WHO SLEPT IN YOUR BED LAST NIGHT by Sarah Meier ’24
The Scarecrow by Sidra Eschauzier ’25
Mother’s Day by Paige Befeler ’22
The Rosary by Anna Kraffmiller ’24
dream people by Maheen Haq ’24
The Candle Would Not Light Itself by Angelina Li ’23
Different People by Hadley Whalen ’24
crying over a limp vegetable by Ann Zhao ’24
vignette by the lake by Hunter Andrew ’23
The time since I last wrote to you has long overgrown – forgive me. In conditions such as these, high levels of stress and low levels of sunlight, the days between intention and action seem to thrive and blossom into weeks. Let us clear out the weeds and reclaim this space. Let me tell you of my life, and my love for you, and all the ways they intertwine.
An abundance of late August rainstorms have completely transformed the landscape of Wellesley College, coaxing an impressive variety of mushrooms to spring up everywhere and creating these enormous, spontaneous lakes all over campus. There’s one of these puddle-lakes by the Science Center, and I pass by it a few times per week on my way to lectures. Tall, moss-covered tree trunks protrude bizarrely from the still surface of the water, their leaves reddening prematurely. It’s a stunning, fantastical scene made all the better by the flock of mallard ducks that have come to call it home. In the afternoon, I watch them play among the fallen leaves, splashing about and searching for food. At night, by lamplight, I can just make out their round silhouettes along the edges of the water, clustered together for warmth or company or perhaps both. And, as I walk back to my little room on the hill, I wish wholeheartedly that you and I were ducks, together, in the rainwater pond. I imagine being careless in the world beyond the daily search for twigs and plants and tasty bugs. I dream of lazy, sun-drenched afternoons with you; I yearn, desperately, to build a nest together.
And of course these dreams are temporary, fleeting. Come winter, the duck pond will dry up, and the birds will have to leave anyway in search of warmer weather. As soon as I get back to my dorm, my mind turns back to papers and problem sets, and each night I choose, again, to stay on the path I’ve walked these past three years, even if it brings me past the tranquil little pool and into the steel-and-glass behemoth beside it. But when I dream, I dream of you. I dream of us, together. I dream of a point in time where growing up doesn’t mean growing away from you. And then I miss you, even more terribly than before, because I don’t know when that will be.
In times like these, when the ache becomes unbearable, I like to think about an unequivocally impossible scenario: traveling at the speed of light. Not only because I could zip over to you and back in a fraction of a second, but also because, in the unattainable reference frame of a photon, time and space collapse to a single point, and everything everywhere happens together, all at once. In the same moment that I leave you, I fall back into your arms. We grow old together as we collide for the first time, that night under the autumn stars, our first kiss and our fifth and our second to last. It’s day and it’s night, perpetual twilight and ageless summer bliss. I love you and I lose you and I find you again, and again, and again.
While we can’t travel at the speed of light, I think it’s enough to know that a place in time exists where we are together again, and as time marches toward it, so do we. And once we get there, we’ll rejoice in our privilege, as slow creatures, of visiting the past only in memory, feet firmly planted in the here and now. In the meantime, I hope you cherish your present, as I do mine. And if you ever begin to ache, remember that there’s no need to rush, my love. Time is a weed that thrives in every crack of pavement: there’s no need to cultivate it. For now, let it be enough that we exist, here in this time and place, and I love you with my whole heart, as I will always.
HOW TO MAKE EGGS FOR THE BEAUTIFUL PERSON WHO SLEPT IN YOUR BED LAST NIGHT
- 3 large eggs
- A dash of milk
- Cheddar cheese
- A heartbreakingly warm ache in your chest – A hesitance to call it love
- Salt and pepper, to taste
YIELDS: 1 serving, split two ways. The intimacy of something shared.
PREP TIME: Two weeks of June, one of July.
COOK TIME: 5-10 minutes.
PREP, THE NIGHT BEFORE: Tell them, as you lie intertwined too late on a Wednesday night blurred into a Thursday morning, that the two of you could wake up early for breakfast. Say you could make them eggs. Confess you only know how to make them two ways, and listen to them laugh as they tuck your hair behind your ear and say anything would do.
STEP 1: Climb out of bed bleary-eyed at 6:30 am (they have work). Kiss them good morning.
STEP 2: In the kitchen, crack your eggs into the bowl, one by one.
OPTIONAL: They make coffee as you do so, and watch as you, deeply concentrated, try not to get shells in the bowl. It’s been a while since you’ve done this. You haven’t made eggs for yourself all summer, instead starting lazy mornings with instant oatmeal, cups of tea. For them, though, you would cook a five-course meal. You would learn how to use the fancy settings on the oven. You would dice vegetables, mince garlic, torch sugar on crème brûlée—it’s a shame you’re a terrible cook.
STEP 3: Add milk, salt, and pepper. With a fork, beat till all ingredients are fully combined.
STEP 4: Melt butter over low heat in the pan to prevent eggs from sticking. Then, pour egg mixture into the pan. OPTIONAL: Turn to them while you wait for the eggs to start to solidify. Lock your eyes with theirs, big and brown, peering up from behind your favorite coffee cup. Smile. Watch them smile back.
STEP 5: Almost forget to grate your cheddar cheese. Grate it, hastily, directly over the pan and onto the half-solidified egg mix. With a spatula, fold the egg in half over the cheese.
STEP 6: Allow to sit for a moment, then flip it to the other side.
STEP 7: When it looks done (decided by a guess and a prayer) remove from heat and plate. Cut the omelet in half with your spatula and serve one half on each of two plates.
STEP 8: Ask, too late, if they want toast. If they say yes, make peace with the fact that it probably won’t be done until the eggs are mostly eaten. Pop toast in the toaster anyway.
STEP 9: Eat sitting across the table from one another. Listen to them tell you it’s the best breakfast they’ve had in a while. Laugh and say you’re pretty sure it’s overcooked. Think, fleetingly but overwhelmingly, that you might be a little in love. Push it down. Eat your eggs. The toaster dings, it’s ready.
STEP 10: When you’ve finished, tell them to leave the dirty dishes and walk them to their car.
STEP 11: Kiss them goodbye.
STEP 12: Kiss them goodbye again.
STEP 13: Through their open car window, kiss them goodbye one more time, right before they drive away. Watch their car, waving, until it rounds the corner and disappears. Go back inside alone. Do the dishes. Replay the night over and over and over again.
STEP 14: Tell yourself you’d be foolish to be in love.
cw: death, references to sexual assault
She wakes me up in the middle of the night, teeth clenched together as if they are holding the life inside of her. “Come with me,” she whispers, and I must still be half asleep, or I must see the coldness in her eyes despite the predawn darkness, or maybe I already know what’s happened, because I follow her without question.
It’s April, but spring still lets winter play in the dead of night. The dusting of frost is disturbed where she pushed the wheelbarrow through the backyard and propped it against our father’s toolshed. I see through the layer of straw. A wheelbarrow is a shallow grave.
“Dead?” I ask, the tremor in my voice betraying me. My tongue feels too big for my mouth.
She nods. It’s a little lighter outside than in my room, and I can see her puffy eyes. She has already done her crying.
I approach the basket and brush away some of the hay. A slack blue face with glassy eyes stares up at me. Lines of black and blue lace his neck. So she strangled him. “Good riddance,” I say, and even in death his eyes burn a hole in me.
“Good riddance,” she echoes, and I am shocked not by the agreement but by the hatred in her voice.
James arrived at high noon to ask for my sister’s hand, with combed hair and a starched shirt and that too-charming smile. He proposed to her in the field out back, and I made myself scarce as Clementine bounced inside, unable to stop laughing, a beautiful chaotic mess of happiness. I was just a mess, locked in the bathroom and finding oxygen hard to come by as I heaved into the toilet.
He would destroy her, my glassy-eyed girl, my scatterbrained angel. He would destroy my sister, with her passionate soul and baby-soft skin and bouncing steps. He would destroy her and it would destroy me to watch.
His parents came over for dinner that night. His father was like him, big and built for farming, with rough callused hands that knew no gentleness. His mother was a passive woman, a beauty before she broke her nose slipping on ice and it healed crooked. Her husband’s booming voice more than made up for her silence. I stayed quiet too, ignoring the spinster jokes thrown in my direction, ignoring when James said I had a single woman’s brain, anyway. He winked at me as he wrapped his hand around my sister’s shoulders. I knew the feel of those hands, the scrape of those nails, how they ripped and tore and muted, and all I could do was pray that they would never touch my sister with such harshness.
I grab the handles of the wheelbarrow, the wood rough and splintered beneath my fingers, and push. I push him through the field where he proposed to my sister six months ago, kneeling atop the wildflowers. My sister walks beside me with a shovel in hand, close enough that I can feel the warmth of her body against mine.
“What did he do to you?” I ask.
She laughs, a bitter, twisted sound. “He didn’t do anything to me,” she says.
I halt, and his face slaps against the side of the wheelbarrow, and mine flushes. She knows.
She puts a hand on my shoulder and looks at me. It takes me a second to rally the courage to meet her gaze. “Okay?” she says, and those honey- brown eyes are more comforting than anything I have ever known.
“Okay,” I choke out. A few tears spill down my cheeks, hot in the cold morning air, and Clementine brushes them away with her baby-soft thumb.
“Let me take him for a while,” she says. My hands ache as I pull them from the handles and step back. I didn’t know how firmly I was holding on until I let go.
Last summer, before James had started seeing Clementine, he came over with some firewood after ours was spoiled in a rainstorm. I knew him well from childhood. He’d always been rough around the edges, something that my mother always said he would grow out of. Clementine said it added to his “dark handsomeness,” whatever that meant.
“Hey, college girl,” he called from the entrance of the barn. “I got some wood for you.”
I barely looked up from the horse I was feeding. “My father’s sitting by the back door. Ask him what to do with it.”
The hay crunched beneath his feet as he walked toward me. I finally looked up when he was a couple yards away from me. He was wearing a pair of too-big overalls that made him look like a child, though the unkempt stubble on his chin said otherwise. He smirked as I wiped my hands on my apron and turned to him. “Not even a ‘hello’? I guess it’s true that college makes girls snobby.”
“What do you want?” I asked, unable to hide the annoyance in my voice.
My lids were heavy, though it was just past midday, and I felt ready to fall asleep on the hay floor.
“They say other things about college girls,” he continued, barely pausing to let me speak.
“Yeah, and I’ve heard it all,” I muttered.
He crossed his arms and took a step closer, that obnoxious smirk becoming a massive grin. He’d lost a front tooth after calling this girl a slut in front of her boyfriend, and the gap showed clear as day. “Speak up, sweetheart.”
“Go take the wood to my father. He’s been expecting you.” I turned away pointedly, bending over to grab another handful of hay for the horse, or maybe to throw at him if he didn’t shove off.
I heard the crunch of his boots on the ground, and then his hands clamped around my hips.
We reach the woods at the edge of our property, the tall oaks providing welcome cover. Birdcalls permeate the air as the sky brightens to a dusky grey. To the east, I can see a purple highlight where the sun will come up.
“We need to be back before sunrise,” I warn.
“I know,” Clementine says. “Let’s just take him a mile or so. Then we can bury him.”
The forest feels different so early in the morning, like fae might jump out of the bushes and take us to a faraway land. It feels like the impossible might happen. The impossible has happened; my sister killed James, and we are hiding his body in the woods.
“What happened?” I ask.
Clementine takes a shaky breath. “Well, he was out drinking with his friends last night, and I woke up when he finally stumbled home. And you know how he is—he can hardly keep a secret when he’s sober.”
I nod, my eyes fixed on the ground. Our footsteps crunch in the silence. “Well, he asks me if I want to… you know,” she continues, and I know that she is blushing, even now. “And I said no. I mean, I was barely awake. And he said that if he weren’t too drunk to stand he would take me even though I didn’t want it. ‘Just like I did to Mathilda,’ he said.”
“I’m sure that woke you up.”
Clementine lets out a laugh that ends on a choking sob, yet she spills no tears. “So I grabbed a pair of his overalls off the ground and he was barely conscious enough to realize what was going on before he went under.” She stops, and I can feel her gaze on me, even though I don’t look. “I just hope he knew what was happening. I hope he knew who I was killing him for.”
Late at night before the wedding, I crept into my sister’s room. She was asleep, limbs and loose curls flung every which way. In the corner of my eye, I saw a white dress hanging in the open closet. I took a deep breath, and tiptoed over the creaky floor to her bed. “Hey. Wake up.”
My words were barely breaths, but her eyes fluttered open and she stared at me. “Mattie?”
I froze. I froze completely. Anything eloquent I’d thought to say was gone.
She was still staring at me, bleary-eyed and confused. She blinked, as if she thought I were a mirage. “Mattie? What do you want?”
“Don’t marry him.”
She stirred a little more, pushing herself up on her elbows. Now she looked concerned. “What?” Her voice was sharper than I thought it would be.
I bit my lip. “He’s not a good person, Clem. He’s just not.”
In one quick movement, she sat up and shoved me, her hands firm and angry against my stomach. I let out a small cry and fell to the ground, landing hard on my forearms. The cold hardwood floor pressed into my burning skin as she glared down at me, gaze fiery. “Get the fuck out of my room, Mattie.”
I didn’t move. I could barely breathe, looking at her with her messy blonde curls floating around her face like a heavenly cloud, and all I could think of was our pastor preaching about divine fury.
“I said get out.”
I picked myself up off the floor and left.
We stop under a big oak in the woods. “That looks like a good spot,” Clementine says, pointing to a small clearing at the base. She tips the wheelbarrow over and James sprawls out on the grass.
“You have to move him if we want to dig there,” I point out.
I don’t want to touch him, mostly because it is James and a little bit because it is a dead body, but Clementine has no such qualms. She grabs him under his arms and drags him until he is propped against the tree. “I can still smell the alcohol on him,” she complains, rubbing her hands against her jacket.
We step back and look at him. Deja vu hits hard; I’ve seen him like this so many times over the years, slumped against a shed or a fencepost for some midday rest. “He’d look like he’s napping if he weren’t so blue,” I say.
Clementine perks up a little, and flutters over to the corpse. She takes off her hat and wrestles it onto his too-large head, then plucks a piece of straw from his overalls and sticks it between his blue lips. She observes him. “He looks like a scarecrow.”
I spit at him. It lands on his stomach, and Clementine giggles. She spits, too, and it hits him smack in the chest. “Nice shot,” I murmur.
“I was aiming for the face.” She takes a few steps forward, frowning, and it isn’t until she draws her foot back that I realize what she’s doing. There is a sickening crunch, and another, more dull impact. When she steps back, there is not much blood, which somehow makes it worse; there is nothing to obscure the inversion of his face, or the way his shattered, fleshy nose lies flat between sunken cheekbones. I can’t help it—I turn away and vomit.
Clementine begins laughing. Maybe it would be less terrifying if she sounded evil, but she doesn’t. She laughs exactly the same as she did when she stumbled in from the field with James, a shiny new ring on her finger, joyous and in love.
Eventually, I stop and rub the toe of my boots on the ground to get the vomit off. By then Clementine is digging, humming songs under her breath, and as the sun paints the sky a fiery orange I am transported inexplicably to another day, years ago.
It was early in the morning. Clementine and I snuck downstairs to play. I remember my bare feet were cold against the wooden floor, and I curled them under my nightgown as we sat before the dollhouse, moving the little painted figures through the motions of the day. Clementine sat her little girl at the piano, and began singing in a hushed voice. “Oh my darling, oh my darling, oh my darling Clementine, you were lost and gone forever—”
And I put my hand over her mouth. “They’ll hear you,” I said, but I knew they wouldn’t. It was just that the song was so sad, and I was so overprotective. Some things never change.
As penance for putting my hand over her mouth, Clementine broke the head off my favorite doll.
“Mattie?” Clementine calls. I meet her gaze. In it there is no concern for me. She holds out the dirt-splotched shovel. “Give me a hand, will you?”
Did she kill him for me, or because he messed with someone she considered hers?
I grab the shovel and swallow my bile, glancing at James’ smashed face. “The sooner we get that thing in the ground, the better.”
My bones are heavy as I dig the grave. Tears well in my eyes, and I turn around so Clementine doesn’t see them spill.
The child fumbles with its dinner as the mother enters through the front door. Peas scurry around the stained white plastic table as the child’s tiny, wrinkled fingers push the miniscule vegetables like marbles, scattering everywhere except into the child’s mouth.
The mother pays the babysitter, and thanks her with a pained smile. The mother puts her bag down on the table, bleary-eyed from a long day. She looks at the child.
She didn’t want it, but it’s here.
She squished her dreams like those bite-sized, miniscule marbles, only to make room for this child.
She made room for it within her, but it will grow up without her, for she is not really here. Not since the nausea turned from slight discomfort to undeniable dread.
They told her it was the size of a pea when she first knew it was inside her. Seven weeks pregnant. One week too late.
She’d have liked to be a teacher. Or a journalist. Or anything, really. Never got to really try after sweet sixteen turned sour. No more high school, only endless days of waiting for the child to emerge. Now it is here. And every day she cares for the child, she loses more of herself.
The child is fed a spoonful of applesauce. Refuses the peas. The mother takes everything one moment at a time, painfully slow, surviving each second.
It’s whatever day the calendar tells her. Today it’s Mother’s Day. She will not receive a call, nor card, nor care from her own mother, and not from the father of the child either.
Dinner is over and she unlatches the baby’s tray table. The peas roll to the floor. She does not care.
She takes the bib off the child and puts it in the sink. The baby giggles, applesauce crusting around its mouth.
“Mum-mum-mum,” child says to mother.
The mother is silent as she finishes the day that was meant to be hers, alone.
I kneel on the velvet-lined board before the open, dark-varnished casket. I don’t know how to cross myself, so I don’t, and I don’t know how to pray, so I don’t. She looks unlike herself, I think, except that I hadn’t seen her for three months before her death so what do I know. I hold my breath, which is stupid, but I do.
My grandmother’s mottled hand is wrapped in a rosary I don’t recognize. A golden chain, reflective black beads, Jesus with his arms spread wide and his head tipped down. My mother told me last night it would be there, told me the funeral home insisted on having one, told me she dug it out of my grandmother’s underwear drawer. It must’ve belonged to your great-grandmother, she said. It must be very old. My grandmother’s hair is set in the curls she always liked. A pink silk blouse, a white cardigan with tiny leaves embroidered in green at the hem.
My knees are cramping.
Tomorrow, in the red-brick Church of the Blessed Sacrament, when the priest calls the mourners up for communion, I will cross my arms over my chest and bow my head as a heathen, and he will touch me on the forehead and give me a blessing instead of the body of Christ. I will remember being seven, my whole second-grade class except for me in their white First Communion clothes, and I will remember being fifteen, my Catholic classmates picking out a saint’s name to place beside their own. If my mother had bothered to baptize me, I would’ve named myself after Joan of Arc. I will remember my grandfather’s funeral, my great-aunt who was serious about these things casting an eye askance at me when I got in line for communion, and hissing in my ear not to touch it, not to partake.
I will remember that my great-aunt died two years ago and I didn’t go to her funeral.
When I walk back to my pew, I will feel the ghost of the priest’s hand on my forehead and think of being Joan. My mother will grab my elbow and whisper to me that the funeral home gave her the rosary. It’ll be in her purse, wrapped in a handkerchief among old cough drops and loose change, and I will ask her what anyone even does with a rosary. Do you wear it around your neck? She’ll laugh at me, and we’ll get dirty looks from the real Catholics.
My mother will die in twenty-four years. At that time, I’ll find the black and gold rosary in her jewelry box, next to her pearls and a scarab beetle bracelet I never saw her wear. She will be cremated and have a godless funeral, but her ashes will be interred in the same cemetery as my grandmother and my great-grandmother. I will still live in Boston. I will always live in Boston, but I will have no daughters. I’ll put the rosary on my bookshelf. I’ll tell my cat that when I die, she can have the rosary. My cat will meow. Her name will be Joan.
The curly-haired boy drowned in the fish pond when he was very young. His parents held an expensive rainy funeral for him that he was unfortunately unable to attend. Instead, he was stuck in the pond, limbs suspended in algae, oddly shaped worms settling on his face. A wise, regal looking koi fish offered to teach him the cultural practices of the pond. Having no better options, the dead boy agreed. It was slow learning, and during winter, when the pond froze over, the boy grew listless and afraid. I hate this place, he whined, but the koi fish was unsympathetic and increased the intensity of the lessons.
The other fish began to knit the boy a crown of bottle caps and turtle shells. Fish are notoriously poor craftsmen, so the boy was very scornful of the gift when they presented it to him. He ripped it up with his swollen fingers and the fish were very offended. In retaliation, their wide mouths began to suck away little chunks of his rotting flesh. But you must remember that fish are also notorious for their poor memories. So after a few moments they forgot about the insult, and began to make the crown for the dead boy all over again, much to his chagrin.
The man in the sun is the most beautiful being in the world. At least, this is the general consensus. In addition to being very beautiful, he is also very hard to look at, due to the intensity of his brightness. You can only look at him for a few seconds before little white spots dance in front of your eyes. The man in the sun also has a penchant for speaking surprising and unwanted truths. But, to be fair, a very reputable therapist diagnosed the sun with Excessive Knowledge and Chronic Exposure to Secrets Syndrome (EKCESS). On a more positive note, the sun is considering devoting himself to reducing stigma about the disease.
The moon knows the sun best, because she has shared the sky with him ever since time began. She told the stars, who told the angels, who told the priests, who told the laymen, who told their children, that the sun has a caustic disposition and has lost a great deal of money gambling on human wars. He bet against Alexander the Great every single time, said the moon. How stupid can you be to do that! But even though she had valid criticisms of the sun, the priests did not care, and continued to draw his face on all of their altars anyway.
The old god’s job was to catch runaway stars. This god had a beard that stretched all the way from his chin to his toes. It gathered a great many things in it, like rattlesnake eggs and the words of long lost civilizations. Every day, his wife said that his beard was disgusting and demanded he cut it, but the old god was very proud of his beard’s deep blue color and refused.
At night, when the stars crept out between the folds in the sky, the god hefted his net onto his left shoulder and set out to catch the strays. He strolled through the clouds while humming the funeral dirge that was sung for the death of the first man. The world was new to funerals, then, and there were not really that many mourners, so the dirge had quite the uplifting beat. The silky notes alerted the stars to the god’s presence. Those who were tired of the sky took off immediately, but the god was an experienced star catcher and anticipated this movement. Unfortunately, his beard caught around his ankles and tripped him, allowing the stars to get away. The more confident stars began to giggle. You should have listened to your wife! they chortled, and the old god began to seriously ponder passing on his responsibilities to some younger, up-and-coming god.
The priestess scrounges through the ruins of her mother’s temple with ash-grey fingertips. People come here often, but not to pray, and they leave no offerings behind. They like to ogle at the fallen pillars and severed idol limbs. When they come, the priestess flattens herself to the shadows. Her skin is the same color as the time-dried walls of her dead mother’s home, so she blends in very well. The visitors leave behind wads of chewing gum and dead skin cells. She laps them up eagerly with her sand-dry tongue. Then she returns to digging through the temple stones, looking for clues of her mother’s affection.
Her mother’s death was slow and quite painful. She was the goddess of a river that is now dried up. In her prime she had about two hundred and fifty worshippers, but these turned out to be fickle devotees. Philosophers came and opened their great big red mouths, killing the goddess with their words. She withered up like a newt, and all of her children were left behind, immortal, confused, and with no one to feed them.
A glowing woman with wings is stuck in the tiger enclosure at the zoo. She didn’t know it was a zoo when she landed in it, because it’s hard to tell from above. Maybe you would expect her to have known that from her arial vantage point. Surely a large array of animals wandering about in the midst of an urbanized landscape would be a red flag. But you have to understand that you tend to forget certain things when you’re flying. Luckily, the winged woman was prepared with copious amounts of pepper spray and also a pocketknife, so she wasn’t too worried about sharing her space with predators.
She’s also free to fly away whenever she likes. Her wings are very large and are shaped like pterodactyl ears. They’re scaly too, and very cold to the touch. In the daytime they look a bit underwhelming, but at night they shine like freshly hammered gemstones. If you look at her closely, you might think she looks a bit like Icarus. But there’s no one alive to remember Icarus anymore, save for the sun, and he doesn’t like to comment on that sort of thing.
The Candle Would Not Light Itself
Forty-two philosophers stood in something of a prayer circle and stared, hardly blinking, at a candle that remained, despite their best philosophical efforts—unlit.
They were philosophers from every field of thought and walk of life, from authors of oft-cited papers to posters on fringe Internet forums. There was a logical philosopher, a linguistic philosopher, an ethical philosopher, a theological philosopher, a cosmic nihilistic philosopher, an anarchist philosopher, a poet philosopher, a professor philosopher, a conspiracy philosopher, an armchair philosopher, a YouTuber philosopher, a witch philosopher, a sentient AI philosopher, a mad philosopher, and to some disdain, a philosopher without a cause.
All forty-two philosophers were gathered, at this indeterminate and ahistorical location, to think a flame into existence.
“This is all very much,” the mad philosopher said loudly. The circle had broken apart once, unsurprisingly, the philosophers came to the conclusion that the candle would not light itself. That was their only point of agreement.
The mad philosopher stood in the center of the room and waved her hands in big circles, as if to fan a flame. She was ignored, as usual, by everyone but for the conspiracy philosopher, who contradicted the mad philosopher at every turn so as to appear more reasonable himself, and the poet philosopher, who was convinced of the beauty in the mad philosopher’s uncompromising chaos.
The logical and linguistic philosophers, who were acquaintances, took over a desk in a corner and began to engage in an excited dialogue about what they presumed to be a fallacy in communication. “We’ll call this paradox ‘the cause of the candle,’ yes? We cannot light a flame without a match which cannot be lit without a flame, no?”
Several philosophers pulled chairs into a haphazard cluster around the abandoned candle. In this new lounge area, the main discussion became dominated by, inevitably, the ethics of creation.
“The candle is a test of the divine,” the theological philosopher mused, drawing a hand to the beard he was still growing. “Are any of the present company Creators in right?”
More than a few philosophers bristled at the theological philosopher’s distinct capitalization of creation.
“The divine is dead,” the cosmic nihilist philosopher snapped, with no small amount of dramaticism.
“It is not creation that we’re doing, but alchemy,” the witch philosopher said with the last shred of sincerity she could muster. She was disappointed that no one had given her the floor, and annoyed that poppy seed muffins she brought had been given a wide berth as though they contained warts.
“Existence does not happen by choice,” the ethical philosopher murmured, wringing his hands.
That the sentient AI philosopher agreed with. “If existence is not by choice, then creation exists.” They communicated entirely in if/then statements, computed exclusively in binary, and used only nonbinary pronouns.
“Oh, will anyone listen and stop trying to make a point?” the witch philosopher snapped. She flipped her shawl over one shoulder and stalked into a corner.
The philosophers who did not come to make a point were as follows.
The mad philosopher came to make friends.
The YouTuber philosopher came for the content but stayed for the mid-life crisis.
The poet philosopher came because she was attracted, both to the metaphor of the flame and the mystery of the mad philosopher. The two were not mutually exclusive, she decided.
The anarchist philosopher wanted to ask the witch philosopher on a date. She baked cookies for the occasion and had been slowly sidling up to the witch philosopher like a smitten kitten, then drawing back at the murderous glares the witch philosopher kept shooting around the room.
The armchair philosopher had set up a bar and a potluck in a corner. Having bartended, he believed that food for thought was quite literal.
The professor philosopher came for the wine, so the bar was especially appreciated.
The philosopher without a cause, who at this point had shown no interest in any discussion whatsoever, began to show their true colors by devouring an entire plate of falafel in one fell swoop.
They then feigned discretion when attempting to tuck breadsticks into their pockets.
The armchair philosopher, who had also worked as a bouncer, grabbed onto their already bulging coat.
The philosopher without a cause twisted away, knocking into the backs of several other philosophers.
At the same time, the “Creation” circle was getting frustrated.
The cosmic nihilist philosopher had meant to say, “existence is pointless,” but it came out, not even regrettably, as “you are pointless.”
The ethics philosopher was the first to throw a punch.
The candle was knocked over.
Everyone was unhappy. No one wanted to stop fighting.
So no one saw the philosopher without a cause light the candle and place it back into position.
When the philosophers glimpsed a flame out of the corner of their eyes, when they gasped and then stood together in shared silence—the philosopher without a cause had already made off with the silverware.
“And then she told me she’d never really been in love with him.”
“So the wedding’s off, then?”
Mira squints at me through the frames of her cherry-red glasses, the upper corners narrowed into a suggestion of cat-eyed points. As always, they are paired shade-for-shade with the intensity of her lipstick. “Did I say that?” She muses.
“So it’s not off,” I say, smoothie straw halfway to my lips.
She shakes her head. “Oh, they’re still going through with it.”
“Must have been one hell of a bachelorette party.” I force a laugh, in some way glad that I wasn’t actually invited. The whole situation sounds unbearably awkward.
“Mm-hm,” she nods, taking a sip of her cappuccino.
A moment of silence, punctuated only by my awful slurping of whatever kale-and-wheatgrass concoction this is. I really regret not ordering my usual strawberry banana smoothie, but it just seemed so dreadfully mundane, and something about Mira has always made me terrified she’d wander away if I wasn’t able to capture her attention long enough.
“So…is it the money?” I finally ask. “Or what?”
Mira rolls her eyes. “What do you think? Of course, she gave a whole long speech about how he’s still her chosen life partner or whatever, but there’s clearly no other reason for it.” She lowers her voice slightly, as though everyone else in the cafe is just waiting to rat us out to the wedding party. “You’ve seen his Instagram.”
Oh right. That disdainful tone. It’s an echo of the broader reason Mira and I haven’t spoken in three years. Not even out of animosity, but just because I didn’t need the emotional drain, and I doubt she even noticed.
“I’m not entirely sure my parents are in love with each other after forty years, but they’re still happily together,” I offer.
“And I could say the same about mine, but they’re ancient,” she responds, then leans in closer, as though about to divulge some great secret of the universe. “I just think that when you’re young and in love, it should be this wild, passionate thing, ya know?”
I suddenly find myself suppressing a giggle, thinking of the quiet apartment I share with Dan, our three cats, and four potted plants.
I shrug. “Love just means different things to different people, I guess.” And for the first time, that inexplicable feeling of uneasiness I’ve always had around her is gone.
crying over a limp vegetable
It’s the hottest day of summer, but your parents stubbornly keep the air conditioning off, opening the windows, turning on fans, because that’s how they did it back in China. The sticky feeling gets to you, and so does your mom’s voice as she chats with a relative on the phone, and you feel utterly trapped in this place, and before you know it, you get in your car and start driving.
You drive for the amount of time it takes to listen to half of Mitski’s Be the Cowboy. When you’re going through something, and you’re trying to pretend you’re not, but there’s nobody around to see you cry, Mitski is usually a good choice.
And then you see a strip mall. A Planet Fitness, a Best Buy, and a Park to Shop—a Chinese supermarket, maybe a ripoff of Hong Kong’s ParknShop, which your aunt took you to once when you were six.
You park, and you shop.
After the rush of cool, dry air as you enter, the interior of the store does absolutely nothing to brighten your mood, all fluorescent lights and unfinished ceilings and a complete lack of windows. Packaged foods are laid out with price labels in English and Traditional Chinese, which you can’t read because you only know a sliver of Simplified Chinese.
(Doesn’t really matter; your Mandarin is rusty at best, and your Shanghainese is practically nonexistent since you only spoke it with your Ngabu and Ngagong, your mom’s parents, when you were little. Speaking, reading, and writing—you can’t do much of any of it. You can listen to your parents speak their dialects and understand what they mean; you respond, however, in English.)
The vegetable aisles are completely empty, save for one older woman stocking groceries, because it’s the middle of the afternoon on a weekday. You can barely tell what any of these vegetables are in their uncooked form. As you got older, your dad stopped telling you the names of the dishes he was making for dinner, so you just don’t know. So you decide not to buy anything, even though you know your parents will chide you for driving all the way out to an Asian grocery store—a Chinese one, at that, not the Korean H Mart that’s much closer to your house—only to not make a single purchase.
And then you turn, and you see a limp head of bok choy in a picked- over pile. It looks so ugly and so sad, the leaves all wilted and yellowing, with holes in them. You have no idea how it made it through the farm-to- store process.
It’s your favorite vegetable to eat, which makes this doubly sad, and as soon as you think that thought, you feel five years old. It’s that, more than all the other things that you’ve seen and heard and felt in the last half an hour, that makes you start crying.
Crying over a limp vegetable is not how you expected to spend your day. As the tears spill out of your eyes, you sink down and sit on the floor, out of sight of the lady stocking groceries and anyone else who might happen to come here and see you.
It’s just a head of cabbage.
But it’s a sad-looking head of cabbage. You know what cabbages are supposed to look like. Crisp and green and bright. The way the stalks crunch in your mouth even when they’re cooked. This head of bok choy looks like it can’t possibly be saved.
You don’t know what you’re doing here. You don’t really know what you’re doing at all. You’re supposed to start your new job next month, and you hate that because you hate capitalism with your entire soul just like every other person in your generation. You’d be in Seattle for it already, but you don’t have to be, and your parents will miss you.
At least, that’s what you tell yourself. Maybe you’ll miss them more.
There must be something different in the air in this godforsaken grocery store, because you stand back up and look at the bok choy, and you swear, you see yourself in this cabbage. It probably wouldn’t want to leave this store, but one way or another, it’s going to. It’ll probably get tossed in a dumpster by that lady who’s still patiently restocking, turning a blind eye to your disheveled appearance. If it doesn’t get thrown away, someone will buy it, and then they’ll either cook it and eat the worst bok choy of their life, or they’ll just throw it away in their own trash.
You want to give this cabbage a better life.
It’s stupid, right? It’s a singular vegetable. Buying and eating this cabbage will do nothing to solve America’s food waste problem. And besides that, you don’t even know how to cook it, so you’ll have to ask your dad to do it, and maybe he’ll throw it out because it’s a pathetic, limp cabbage that’ll taste terrible.
But the lady is approaching now, dragging a cart of fresh vegetables behind her, and you take one look at her and decide right then that you’re going to buy the fucking cabbage.
You look around for a roll of those thin plastic bags that people put their vegetables in. The nearest one is empty. At the end of the aisle, though, is another roll, and you march over there and rip a plastic bag off of it, fumbling to open the bag. Quick as daylight, you snatch the bok choy off the display and deposit it unceremoniously into the bag.
You look up at the lady again. She makes eye contact with you.
“Are you sure you want that one?” she says in lightly accented English. She can apparently tell from a glance that your Chinese language skills are amateur. “I was just about to put these new ones.” She gestures to the crate of bok choy on her cart.
“Oh. Um. No. I—I mean, yes, I’m sure. I’ll just take this one.”
“Do you want any more?”
Shaking your head as you blush furiously, you say, “No, no, it’s fine. This is good.”
You leave the store with a plastic bag in hand, the cabbage sitting inside along with a box of strawberry Pocky. The cashier didn’t bat an eye when he scanned your measly collection of items. You put the bag in your passenger seat, and the bok choy looks even sadder there on the passenger seat of your too-hot car. You almost want to buckle it in.
Your dad is going to be so confused when you hand him this bok choy. You’ll probably mutter something about how there was a sale, and when he tells you it’s practically garbage, you’ll say you didn’t know, and then you’ll go back to your room and shut the door and start crying again because if that cabbage is garbage, then what does that make you? And then he’ll cook it anyway because he has a feeling it’s what you need. He always knows.
Be the Cowboy starts over again.
vignette by the lake
Stay here. Close to me. Just a little longer.
When I slow myself down, I can see the promise of a laugh hidden in your almost-dimples. When I hold my breath, I can see the rhythm of yours.
One step backward.
I trace the path from your eyes to the water. There is a pair of geese and a quartet of swans circling around each other. We are all waiting for someone else to make the first move.
Notice, now, how the wind numbs the mind.
I roll a half-good screw between my fingertips, freshly pulled from the bench we are sharing. If it were to collapse, I don’t know which of us would go down first.
The four PM sun hits your face and you shimmer in the dying rays of light.
I wish I could keep this moment in the photo frame of my wallet. I do not know if you know this, but I will hold on to this memory, to the golden sun, to your face, to our gentle laughter next to this lake, forever.