by Cleo Qian
We met at a summer party. What struck me first were his ankles, visible underneath the frayed hem of his jeans, which were straight-cut and unusually short. They stopped right above his ankle bone. It would have looked like they were clothes he’d outgrown, except somehow, the length on those jeans seemed intentional. He also wore plain slides, a loose T-shirt and a pink bucket hat. I didn’t think him anything special at first. But his jeans, and his bare ankles, made me think of a manga I’d once read when I was in high school.
It was about a boy and a girl who started dating as students, he, popular and laid-back, she, a shy new girl in town. Then the boy moved away, and though they continued their relationship long-distance, a few months later he suddenly cut off all communication with her. His disappearance was total. No one could tell her where he was.
It ended up a sad story. The boy’s mother had committed suicide. He didn’t tell anyone but stopped speaking to anyone he knew and worked to support himself, falling deeper into depression each year. What I remembered most were the soft-colored cover illustrations, the boy smiling and relaxed in loose clothing and sandals, cooling himself with a paper fan. His figure always receded into the background against the hot blue sky, as though to symbolize how distant he was despite that wide smile.
The story was delicate; the author didn’t rely on cliffhangers; she didn’t leave you feeling desperate and jerky and somehow frustrated as other authors did. It was a long manga, and when I finished all the available chapters, I would wait patiently for the next ones to be released, scanned, translated and posted online.
I hadn’t thought of the manga in years, until I had come to this party and was introduced to Kane. Pronounced like kah-neh, not like cane. “Nice to meet you,” he said, putting out a hand. For a moment he was fully focused on me. Then his attention turned back to his conversation with the host, which I had interrupted as I was led into the party by the friend of a friend I’d run into earlier that day. As I was introduced to the others, Kane and his friend walked out of the kitchen to the backyard, and I saw his ankles sticking out of his jeans.
The party spilled outside. There was a charcoal grill for corn, sausages, chicken. Someone had lit a green mosquito coil, which smoked quietly on the ground. Over the fence the skyline was dotted with the burnt orange of streetlights and pollution. The air had the warm, toasty smell unique to humid summers. I’d grown up in a dry state and this smell, the first time I encountered it and ever afterwards, made me think of memory, chance, and possibility.
When I became tired of the introductions and listening and small talk, I went back inside under the pretext of getting another drink. There were a few people inside, talking quietly amongst themselves, or absorbed in changing the playlist or stacking a house of cards. A short distance from the couch a plastic chair was placed next to the window, which looked out to the back. An electric fan hummed and rotated slowly. I sat down and leaned my head back against the wall. I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand.
Neither a very long time nor a particularly short time later, Kane came inside and opened the fridge. He poured himself a pink drink from a clear pitcher.
He saw me looking. “Watermelon juice?”
I was thirsty. “Sure,” I said.
When he came to hand the drink over, he also pushed the window open. Behind the pane was a fly screen.
“So the fan can blow the hot air out,” he explained. And I could already feel it was cooler outside.
He perched on the edge of the sofa, not very far, but not very close either. He drank from his juice. I sat up straight and drank from mine. It was cool and just sweet enough.
“How’re you doing?” he asked me casually, and without really thinking about it I said, “I’m pretty comfortable.”
“Good.” He smiled.
The door to the back opened and the friend who I’d come with poked his head inside. “It’s a little wet out there,” he said. “Looks like it’s gonna rain.”
Kane got up and followed him out. I heard his voice through the fly screen. “We better close the grill,” he was saying.
The people outside started filing in. “Where’s the juice?” someone said.
“Can we mix it with vodka?” someone else asked.
I leaned my head back against the wall and held the drink to my mouth. My fingers dampened with the beads of condensation on the outside of the cup. I thought of the manga and the illustration of the boy with the fan. I could imagine Kane with a fan, lazily waving it against himself while scuffing around outside.
A light sprinkle had begun outside, and when I listened carefully I could distinguish the soft thrush thrush of the drops hitting the fly screen.
I liked Kane because he was so relaxed.
“I’m a casual kind of guy,” he had said at the party, and it was true, he didn’t seem to have a formal bone in his body. Even when, later, I saw him in more structured clothing, a jacket with lapels, close-toed boots, he still managed to give off an incredibly indolent impression, like he was always sprawled out on a picnic blanket under a shaded tree. The harsh things of the world probably slid off him like water from a shower curtain.
When I met him, Kane was between jobs. The company he’d worked for for the last four years had cut his department, and he was looking for work, with no leads. But from the unhurried way he talked about it, I thought he was still taking it better than most, he spent his time drinking with friends, playing video games, walking around his neighborhood, tooling around on side projects while figuring out his next steps.
I started dating someone else I met at the party, a photographer named Aaron. He was good-looking in a carefully manufactured way, the dark V-neck tees and immaculate architecture of his hair always simple, but never unplanned. He was a photographer who worked with a lot of high-end brands and products, who’d shot for brands whose expensive window displays shimmered glassily on long, skyscrapered avenues downtown. After the party he’d reached out through the friend I’d come with and asked me to ramen. We walked around and stopped at two bars before he said, “Well, my place is up the street there, do you want to see it?”
After we slept together, he said that he really just wanted to keep his attention on his work, he was at an important stage where his career was taking off and he didn’t want anything serious.
Curled naked in his bed, not touching him, I immediately felt a tension that had been in me relax and release. Some unspoken expectation lifted, or the fear of some such expectation. Fine with me, I said. He looked unconvinced and I added that I was applying to grad school and I didn’t want anything getting in the way of that.
Aaron’s whole demeanor loosened and he said that was great, great, he hated it when people asked him for a lot, like his thoughts on marriage, or long-distance phone calls at certain times every day.
“Same,” I agreed, “that’s too much pressure,” and I believed what I said. It was better this way. While we were together that night and even later, when he had said things I disagreed with, or acted in ways that I had found irritating, I would suppress this instinct and remind myself we were both placeholders for each other, and in this way, not be too disappointed.
Perhaps because of this relief from expectation, Aaron was, occasionally, generous towards me. He liked to have me come over to his apartment late at night, often last minute, but he would also cook for me. With him I didn’t have to talk much. He was willing to fill the silence with observations or questions that weren’t too demanding. I didn’t find what he had to say particularly interesting, but I didn’t mind it. Such ambivalence was new to me; I either loved someone or hated them, oscillating on extremes of loyalty and apathy, I was always anxious about one relationship or another. But it was tiring being such a purist. It had been a long time since I had had anything close to a romantic relationship in my life, even something as open-ended as with Aaron, and I wondered what it meant, whether something in my life had opened, or I had.
A few weeks later, Aaron took me to a party. A friend of his, a potter, had moved to a new studio. At the long worktable, there were all the tools for us to make something—clay, stands, newspaper, files, glazes, picks—but most people just stood around munching on olives and grapes from the cheese board and passing around cigarettes. They were connected to each other in amorphous ways: classmates, fraternities, friends of friends of friends. They were designers, social media managers, DJs, tech developers, but the sexy, young kind, who worked with products like 3D art installations. A lot of the people from the first party were there. We were mostly Asian, so I felt at ease, it was a space in which I could choose to speak or not to speak and it wouldn’t mean anything more than it was.
Kane arrived in a white T-shirt with strange illustrations of creatures I couldn’t identify, worn under an expensive-looking dark jacket, and his hair, which had been as long as his chin when I last saw him, was tied back in a tiny rabbit’s tail. I wasn’t sure that I liked it. I was also unsure of whether to catch his eye, of whether he’d remember me.
“Kane,” Aaron said, and they exchanged greetings, patting each other on the shoulders, hey man, it’s good to see you. I lingered behind a little awkwardly, a lost duckling.
Aaron indicated me. “You remember, from your party,” he said.
“Hi,” I said.
“Still doing good?” Kane asked cheerfully.
“Pretty good,” I told him. “What are those drawings on your T-shirt?”
“Oh,” he said, “they’re like, weird fruit.”
I looked at them more closely. They were drawings of hairy, anthropomorphic fruit, such as a pear with chicken legs and covered with bristles.
“It was a concept for an advertisement that didn’t get picked.” He crooked his mouth. “But I still liked it.”
“You drew this?”
“A long time ago.”
Aaron was chatting with the host, who had her hair bundled up to show her beautiful long neck. The overhead lights were industrial in design and cast a yellow glow. Later the conversation turned to China. The host had just returned from a pottery workshop there, we were all Asian, but only Kane and I were Chinese. The host and Kane spoke more and more forcefully, Aaron and I stood silent. I was unsure of whether this was an argument, what emotions were at stake.
“People say there’s all this bad shit happening there now,” he said, “like, the government control, the censorship, the lack of privacy…”
“The human rights violations, the fake baby formula, the people getting arrested…” the host said.
“Right,” he agreed. “And I get it. But I don’t like hearing it. Somehow the East is always the bad guy. It never gets to tell its own story. Like, let the people who actually live there speak for themselves.”
I nodded along. I didn’t like to talk about being Chinese or Chinese-American, I felt it was safer to keep my experiences to myself, unvoiced, and yet everything he said, I agreed with. So he can be like this, too, I thought.
The argument ended with a laugh, the host disappeared to get a drink. I wandered to where Kane sat at the far end of the table. He started trimming the block of clay with a wire.
“I didn’t know you knew how to do pottery.” I stood close to the edge of the table.
“I don’t,” he said. I watched him wet his fingers from a bowl of water and shape the clay with his palms, deftly molding it into a ball. His hands were quickly covered in grey sludge. He plunged his hands into the clay and sank his fingers deep, with what looked like a very satisfying squelch. He looked up at me and I felt the shock of his casual attention. “Kids play with mud all the time, don’t they? I’m just playing.”
Something took flight in me with a wrenching sweetness. Like the feeling I got when I listened to a certain type of music when I was alone. It reverberated in a place that was hollow.
I watched him dig his fingers into the clay feeling completely dislocated from myself.
At the time, I felt like I was living underwater. My surroundings, my daily life, felt unreal to me, it was as though everything travelled to me slowly, the way sound travels more slowly in the ocean. When emotions hit me, they did so with completely unexpected force and I would be astonished, more so because I had previously thought of myself as someone very in touch with my own feelings.
I’d grown up in the city and moved back after college. What I told Aaron—that I was applying to grad school—was a lie, but it could have been true. I had even bought a book of standardized test practice questions. I had a plethora of side projects, studying languages, French, Japanese, Spanish, or the evening classes I took in figure drawing, trapeze, guitar. I wasn’t comfortable with aimless time, I always felt I had to be doing something to improve myself, though this constant re-education was expensive and I only barely supported myself on a series of temp jobs I worked while hopping from hobby to hobby, skill to skill.
At my current job, I documented protocols and benchmarks for processes I didn’t understand and products I didn’t see. I spent a lot of time on calls with vendors and clients asking for status updates and whether it was realistic that this deadline would be met. I worked in a big, glassy building with an enormous embedded fish tank in the reception area, long fins of red, gold and white flickering between undulating sea plants. I would look at the fish and imagine I was inside, insulated from the reality around me through thick glass and water made a deep blue by the artificial backlight.
There was a gym on the seventh floor of the building, and very late in the evenings, when everyone had left, or on the weekends, I would churn on the elliptical playing old albums over and over through my headphones. Afterwards, if I was in a particularly solitary mood I’d walk an hour home, across a bridge chugging with car exhaust over invisible water and then into the tangle of quiet, tree-lined streets in the exquisite dark.
The most consistent endeavor in my life was the clothes I made, a whole wardrobe of patched jeans and shirts cut into strange, geometric shapes. I wasn’t really a designer, more of a salvager. I salvaged everything I could from clothes people were throwing away, clothes I didn’t wear anymore, thrift store finds, items covertly stolen from lost and founds. I had a mannequin I’d found at a charity shop years ago, and it was the host of a constant parade of changing outfits, animal-print blouses cut into bralettes, turtlenecks studded with grommets, a denim skirt with so many cut-outs sewn onto it you couldn’t see the denim anymore. The only bare part was the head, a blank white egg, which I had never covered with a wig or a hat.
Eventually, I thought, I would do something big, have an exhibit, costume a film—but the fact that I had come this many years from graduation and had not accomplished anything large, observable, or concrete was an uncomfortable weight. Sometimes I thought I should get a real, that is to say, adult job. I vaguely imagined saving up and moving somewhere, out of this city, out of this country, to somewhere where I wasn’t known, though I couldn’t even say that I was known here. Most of my close friends had moved away over the last few years, new jobs, new partners, PhD programs, med school, priced out of urban life, until I was the only one left. That winter my last old friend, Janine, had left the city. I spent a lot of my time on the phone, my voice traveling across wires and airwaves to the ears of other friends in other rooms late at night, their lamps glowing through windows overlooking other dark streets. We were all in some ways lonely, all dissatisfied, but I felt I was the most lonely and the most dissatisfied.
Earlier in the year, I had convinced myself to go on more dates because I thought I should be more proactive, meet more people, change my life. On my way to my third first date in two weeks, Janine texted me a photo from our final year of college. We’d made a double-chocolate cake with bourbon frosting and written “fuck it” in icing. In the photo I was wearing a yellow and blue shirt, setting candles over the cake and smiling. Next to me was the blue recycling bin where we’d dumped the old drafts of our theses, at the time convinced they were the most important things we had done up until then.
“Youthful follies, lol,” Janine texted.
I couldn’t remember what I had done with the shirt. I started crying on the sidewalk a block away from the cafe. I wasn’t sure which terrified me more: the thought that this was all there was, this limpid transience like I was being carried along from stream to stream, that it would never matter if I did something or didn’t—or the thought that this was not all there was to life, that I was missing something fundamental other people had, drive, vision, intelligence, something, and my fundamental inability to stick with anything overwhelmed me with panic and I would break into a sprint of desperate activity to forget. Either option felt impossibly consequential.
After a minute I wiped my eyes and took a few breaths, went into the café bathroom to wash my face, and had my date. It was fine and led to nothing.
My parents still lived in the childhood home I’d grown up in, a train ride away from the city. Every time I visited, I thought I could see more lines on my mother’s face. In photos from her youth she was beautiful, with large, bright eyes and impossible cheekbones. Now her conversation was more fretful and she was more and more paranoid of the outside world. This made me sad and made my visits even more infrequent.
Late in the summer, I ran into Kane at the laundromat. I say I ran into him, but through some sly sleuthing I already knew that he lived in my neighborhood, as well as other facts: he was a graphic designer, he had come from one of the best art colleges in the nation, one animated short he’d made had won a prize.
It was a coincidence that I had moved into his neighborhood. Like with jobs, I couldn’t stay long at any one apartment either, and had found a tiny sublet with a roommate who was never home. When I found out Kane lived there, too, I thought this might be a sign of some kind of cosmic fate, though really it was a popular neighborhood, one or two other acquaintances also lived here, including the one that had brought me to the first party. I began to spend more time outside of the house than I normally would have, walking in the park, lingering in the grocery store, peering into ice cream shops and restaurants and wondering where he might be.
My laundry was spinning in the dryer and I was reading a book when he came in. He was wearing the same pink bucket hat from the first party, the same slides.
My first instinct was to turn and hide, but instead I caught his attention and said hello, forcing brightness into my voice.
He seemed to take this in stride. “Hey, cool. You live around here too?” He sat on the chair next to me.
“How’s the job hunt,” I asked him. He shrugged the topic off, started talking about an idea for a webcomic he had instead, aliens in church. He showed me a sketch or two on his phone. The characters were round and with flailing hands; they seemed constantly anxious; they were, frankly, adorable. The machine in front of us suds-ed and tumbled. Clothes flicked by in whorls of color, white, grey, sky-blue, pale pink. He shifted weight, crossed and uncrossed his legs.
“I liked everything you said at that other party,” I said quickly. It was true, but I also wanted him to know it. “When we were talking about China.”
“Yeah? I was wondering what you thought.”
I found out we were from the same province, the same hometown. It was a city I recalled from long childhood summers, walking to the department stores at night with my aunts, the grey sky, the umbrellas they held over my head to protect me from sun. Perhaps it had worked because, even now, my skin was very fair. Like me, Kane had gone back on annual family pilgrimages, and it gave me an odd feeling to think that the summers I had spent lying in front of the air conditioner or feeding goldfish at the local park, he might have been somewhere in that city too.
“And another thing,” he added. He wasn’t looking at me anymore but spoke intently, focused somewhere inward, beyond. “When people from the mainland said, ‘Well, you grew up in America, you don’t think like a Chinese. I hate that. My memories of China are so personal, you know? It’s always going to be the place that could have been for me. All those months I spent there, they add up to years, to a life I could have lived. The part of my identity, my self, that belongs there, or could have belonged there.”
“Yes, exactly,” I said, and in my heart I repeated it, yes, exactly, while a feeling of longing suffused me, while I smoothed my thumb over the cover of the book I’d closed, while the laundry machines whirred and the warm baby smell of dryer sheets thickened in the air.
“You’re hard to get a hold of lately,” Aaron said. He stood at his kitchen island, cutting open a grapefruit. Behind him eggs were frying on a pan on the stove.
“Am I?” It was a warm Saturday. I sat at his kitchen table in pajama shorts, drinking instant coffee, flipping through a fashion magazine I’d bought at the corner store before he woke up. He had a beautiful kitchen with a long, polished wooden table—perfect for working—plants in the corners, art on the walls, big windows. Signs of his maturity, his early success, even though he was my age.
“Are you busy studying?” he said, and by the line of his neck I could tell he was annoyed. I had been saying no more often when he wanted to “hang out,” last night I had almost said no when he called me at 11 p.m., but perhaps I was the one who was generous now, because I had felt sorry for him and then said yes.
“Studying for what?” One page in the magazine announced a collaboration between a popular comics artist and a leisurewear company. They’d be printing the characters on T-shirts, leggings, workout tops. I thought of Kane’s little aliens.
“When are you taking the GRE again?”
“Oh, I’m not taking it anymore.” The toaster oven dinged.
“What? Why?” Aaron set a plate in front of me with the halved grapefruit, fried egg, two slices of toast. “Here.” He twisted open a jar of orange jam.
I put the magazine away, picked up my spoon and dug into the grapefruit. “I’m applying to schools in London. You don’t need the GRE for that.”
“You’re going to London?” Aaron looked—well as he might—surprised. His hair was undone and he was wearing the same T-shirt from yesterday, plucked off the ground.
I felt very warm towards him, in his kitchen that morning. It had been so easy to lie. He’d liked me because I didn’t hold him to anything, and now, I thought, I’d surprised him with my coolness.
“How’re you doing?”
At the end of August, Kane had a party at his apartment. The invitation came through Aaron; I still didn’t have Kane’s number.
The last time I’d seen Kane, he was coming out of the grocery store, but hadn’t seen me. Alone, his expression was preoccupied, remote.
I wore my favorite skirt, given to me by a friend who’d bought it in Vietnam. She’d described the lovely lantern-covered town, a minor stop on the old Silk Road, still full of tailors and swaths of bright colors. The skirt was dark blue and short.
“Hey, freaky,” Aaron had said when he came into my room. He meant the mannequin, dressed in a navy velvet dress with a vest of colored ruffles. He had never been to my apartment before.
He sat on my bed. I pulled out a compact and swept iridescent blush onto my cheeks. With my back turned, he observed, “Nice skirt. Your roommate’s out? We can come back to your place after.”
Instead of responding, I walked out of the apartment ahead of him, toting a bag with the six-pack of beer and the silver packages of cream-filled wafers I’d prepared. I thought Kane would like them. My grandparents had bought for me every summer I visited them, and though I hadn’t eaten them in years, when I’d seen them at the Chinese-run grocery store near my parents’ place, the silver wrapping, the tacky font, had recalled all the old pleasure of eating them in front of the television in the summers. At the same grocery store I had bought a box of red bean ice lollies, slightly creamy, barely sweet, which I ate in my parents’ living room, thinking again of Kane, because he made me think of my childhood, which I knew was dangerous.
It was a cool evening, and outside on the sidewalk, the air was grey and soft, only a whisper of moistness visible in the stillness of the trees.
His apartment was a one-bedroom with the living room filled with a large drafting table, a shelf of art books and a deep green sofa so brilliant it seemed to absorb all the other colors in the room. I walked around examining the objects with pleasure—the magazines carefully shelved in order of date, the messy kitchen with the blue and white kettle, a braided red good fortune hanging plastered to the back of a door. I put the beer in the fridge, carefully opened the package of wafers and spaced them out in even piles on the counter.
I nodded at Kane from across the living room. He saw me looking at the books on his shelf, I imagined us circling around each other like the two fish in the tank I had watched at work that afternoon, one with the white ruffle along the upper fin and the other red and white. For the first hour, I moved through the party, speaking to acquaintances, listening in on conversations, following Kane with a sixth sense, a warm spot I could sense moving behind me like a current on a thermal map.
I wandered outside, to where he was sitting with two girls on his stoop. They were passing a cigarette back and forth, speaking with each other in the intimate way of long-time couples, and Kane was off to the side, smoking his own, blowing little streams into the air. I asked how he was.
One of the girls offered me a cigarette.
“You don’t have to,” Kane said with a quick gesture to me.
“I’ll take it,” I said, pleased at his protectiveness. I had not smoked a cigarette in a long time. I double-checked I was putting the right end in my mouth, held it tremblingly and inhaled as she half-cupped my hand and lit it.
Sitting on the stoop next to Kane, I exhaled. The sky was smoggy that night, the air was full of pollen, the temperatures cool. Perhaps it was a dip in weather, or the end of summer.
“How’s your comic going?”
“Oh, it’s good,” he said easily. “People like them online.”
“I’d love to read them.”
“Yeah? I’ll send you the link,” he said. I didn’t ask how.
“I brought some cookies, you should try them.”
“Really? Thank you.”
“They’re those coconut wafers you get at Chinese markets, you know the ones?”
“Oh–hmm? Maybe, I guess I’ll see.”
He wasn’t looking at me. I said quickly, “I’m going to quit my job soon.”
“I want to move to London and make clothes.”
“That’s big for you.”
“Did you make that T-shirt yourself, last time?”
“A friend printed it for me.”
He was bored, I couldn’t tell how to activate his interest in me, that hot bright spark I had felt only a few times before, when we shared the watermelon juice, when he’d spoken to me in the pottery studio. The conversation was going nowhere. Or, it wasn’t going where I wanted it to.
“I’m going to grab a drink,” Kane said. He got up. I followed him inside, to the fridge, where he courteously, impersonally, gave me a bottle of beer, from what I had brought. I drank it by myself, frustrated. Aaron came up and I brushed him off.
In Kane’s bedroom, the potter from the studio party was drunk. The lights were dim. He had a monitor playing an animated video. “I’ve done a lot of work on myself,” she said, slurring. “Now I tell my boyfriend exactly what I want. Can you believe he had lunch with his ex the other day—”
Kane sat apart from her. “Listen,” he said earnestly, “for guys like me, that makes things harder.”
I sat down gingerly on her other side. His bedspread was a paler shade of the absorbent green of his sofa. Whatever he was, Kane had good taste. The closet door, a third of the way open, showed a patch of pink. The hat he’d worn at the beginning of summer. The potter’s head lolled onto my shoulder.
“You agree with me, don’t you?” she implored.
“I agree,” I agreed.
“Hey, where have you been all night?” Aaron appeared again, put a hand around my hip possessively. I flinched and tried to shrug it off but he kept his hand there, even moved his thumb to caress the curve of the back of my skirt.
I tried to laugh it off. “What are you doing?”
“That’s what I should be asking you. You’ve been dancing around all evening.”
His hand was stubbornly attached to my hip. “Come on, let’s go back to your place.”
“Stop it.” I refused to say his name out loud.
He reeled back. Not so drunk as all that, he was clearly angry. “Hey, let’s be clear here. You’re the one who wanted me to bring you here, I wasn’t even originally planning to come, and now you…”
How annoying, how embarrassing. We’d put boundaries on our feelings from day one, it had been agreed, I thought, that we would be only passing through each other’s lives. I thought he would have vanished by now, as everyone did. It was the end of summer, why was he still stubbornly here?
The potter’s head was heavy. I looked at Kane. He was looking at the animation playing on the monitor, pretending not to know anything was going on between Aaron and I. Lost in his own world, as usual.
The potter groaned. Her mouth was closed, her beautiful neck clammy.
“Oh god,” Kane said.
“She needs water.” Me.
“What a mess.” Aaron.
“Get her to the bathroom,” I ordered, looking directly at Kane. Perhaps it was the first time I had looked at him head-on.
His face showed he didn’t want to. But he gestured to Aaron, the two of them gathered the potter up between themselves and hauled her through the door to the bathroom. I was left almost alone with the cool green bedspread. White light spilled out from the bathroom, and retching sounds that made it all too easy to imagine what was going on. I heard Kane’s voice, clear, melodic, slow.
I sensed how unreliable he was, how passive. I knew he was interested, not in me, but in my reflection of him, and for this I hated him a little. Even so I wanted to fasten on to that fleeting, ungraspable quality in him, his flippancy, his ability to shake off consequences. I wanted to tell him about my mother, the fish tank, my solitary walks, the endless years. I couldn’t help it. Even though I knew it was dangerous to take such feelings as signs, even though I knew that this breathless, gut-hollowing feeling of yearning didn’t mean he would not be hurtful, or neglectful, or unkind, or even loving, I couldn’t forget the feeling I had had watching him dig his fingers into the clay and the smell of dryer sheets in the laundromat. These are the feelings of someone at 16, or 18, or even 23, and I wish I could say I was that young, but I was 26, and by that age we have already seen more of the world, it’s not so young as all that.
The closet door gaped open, near the bed, near my hand. Quickly, before I thought too hard about it, I reached inside and pulled out the pink bucket hat.
I could put it on the cold head of my mannequin. The pink would go well with the blue dress.
I could wear it myself in London. Bobbing along on cobbled streets.
While Aaron and Kane stood in the bathroom, I stuffed the hat quickly into my bag. It crumpled easily, sliding in like a wadded tissue. I left the party without saying goodbye. Outside, the two girls were still sitting on the stoop, cigarette butts dotting the step. They nodded to me as I walked away, out of that summer, clutching my prize, their eyes glimmering behind me like the eyes of coyotes in the canyons at night.
Cleo Qian is a writer based in New York.