At 18, I feel like I’m living through memories already.
Tonight’s dinner is punctuated with my brother’s Trump impressions and my dad’s jokes, my grandmother’s stories and my grandfather’s face pink with wine, like scenes carved out of a movie and placed on my plate for consumption.
Pre-pandemic life feels so far away that sometimes I think if someone were to tell me everything before was a dream, I would believe them. Normalcy has become the taste of sleep still in my mouth as I open my laptop and join my first period Zoom call, camera off. The alternation between my desk, the bathroom, the kitchen, and occasionally the neighborhood streets when I go outside for walks, earbuds tuned to Tommy Vietor and Jon Favreau talking about protests in Russia on Pod Save the World. Despite the decreasing ICU bed capacity in my county and the pro-Trump protests that turned violent in my town these past few months, I feel insulated. I’ve watched spring turn to fall and then winter while these streets remain the same, unweathered—the houses, the trees, the route I take. At times, I feel okay.
Other times I look out the window at our greying garden and scare myself with thoughts of being as old as my grandparents, and alone, waiting for the end to come. Surrounded by family, I hold on tight, send up prayers at night in the moments before sleep.
About six or seven years ago, my mother decided to cut down the big oak tree in front of our house and build a subunit on the lot to rent out. She later convinced my grandparents to move up into that subunit from their home in LA so she could take care of them; they have lived with us ever since. Now, ten months into the pandemic, we go next door every weekend to play mahjong with them, the screen-door of my parents’ master bedroom sliding shut behind me as we make our way along the fence to the subunit’s backdoor.
The tiles clack as we shuffle them together over the table, my grandfather complaining goodnaturedly about how slow and inept his hands have become at stacking his share of the mahjong wall. The rounds are flurries of circles and sticks, flowers and seasons, Chinese characters for numbers and wind directions, cheeky comments and sudden laughs. We swap tile for tile. We privately calculate odds. We pay each other in plastic yellow tokens, my mom reminding me every so often to never tell anyone outside of our family that I know how to play mahjong, let alone to play with them.
Inside, I weigh my largest blessing. Before, my inability to speak Chinese and crippling hesitancy to do so left me with the sole option of tagging along with my mom when she went to see them and waiting silently or nodding while she talked with them. Now, I can spend all the time with my grandparents that I felt I was missing out on. I am even sometimes able to tell them things in Chinese in between rounds. “I had an online debate tournament today,” as we shuffle the tiles. Peng. “Yes, the pears taste good,” as I cast a north wind. Chi. Peng. Peng. Gang. Rhythm, a sense of motion and direction. A structure I can operate within, a framework to hold me together as I take steps outside.
It is January of my senior year in high school. Outside the walls of my home, a pandemic ravages the nation, an insurrective mob storms the Capitol, and still the rain doesn’t come to the Bay Area. Within the walls of my home, I wake up for online class calls, finish my work as soon as possible, and break up the days with meals and YouTube vlogs. Brief chats with my dad in the TV room or with my mom and brother in the kitchen serve as the only interludes of life.
In September I will be going to Columbia. Sometimes when I’m alone with my mom, she looks at me for a long time and hugs me especially tight. Sometimes, when we’re laughing in the big group, after I’ve just sided with my mom in her lecture about my dad being more punctual in recording church hymns, she says—mostly joking but with a tinge of sadness—“Who will tell Daddy he’s wrong for me when you’re gone?”
I approach adulthood little-by-little. I call the dentist’s office myself to move up my appointment. I drive to Safeway to pick up bread and drop off mail and packages at the post office. Even with my mom’s (hard-fought) consent, driving alone still feels like a stolen experience—something I shouldn’t be doing but is okay for just this time.
Many nights, as I wait for sleep, I scare myself with thoughts of my grandma collapsing in the kitchen and not getting up. More than anything I fear that one day soon, I will have to start the rest of my life missing this period: one in which everyone was together and happy. This small pocket of time: different from what I’ve known but whole in a way, estranged from the world but immersed in my family like never before and never again. A wholeness that I will have to look back on for the rest of my life and miss. I fear Emma Aylor’s “nostalgia for the first body,” described in her poem about childhood which I have returned to countless times this month. I fear the exit from my first body, an impending transition when I leave for college or my maternal grandparents pass—whichever comes first. At night, I stack blankets on top of my body like the mahjong wall, hoping their weight could push this ballooning uncertainty back down to earth, close this openness up again.
Fear of my grandparents dying: we’ve done this before. In sophomore year, I had a months-long deep-seated worry about my grandparents dying—similar to this one, in fact. Each time my grandma underwent major health complications in sophomore and junior year, I begged God for more time. More time, and I’d be able to say everything I needed to say to her. More time to spend with her before I can finally say goodbye. This time, though, the fear feels more justifiable.
It’s even more frightening because I feel like now is the time, if there ever was one. But I will continue to ask.
My maternal grandfatherwas a teenager in China during the Cultural Revolution when he left his home one morning searching for work, boarded a ship to make some money cleaning, and accidentally sailed to Taiwan. Now 89, gong gong walks with a hunched back and a mind as clear as ever. He is cheerful with me when he has taken his medications, and has picked me and my brother up from school all the way from sixth grade until the start of the lockdown. In Taiwan he worked as a driver for the American embassy, once driving the U.S. Secretary of State safely through an angry mob of anti-American protestors at the airport. He showed me his certificate of commendation with pride, shuffling slowly to his room to retrieve a yellowed, uncrinkled piece of paper issued by Warren Christopher’s office after the incident.
Though he has had many a scuffle with my grandmother, with him not allowing her to see her friends back in LA and her complaining about long-past grievances against him, I don’t have a hard time envisioning that if something happened and she passed away, he would go not long after her.
My po po raised my mother on the instruction to pursue financial independence at all costs and never depend on a man. Progressive for her time, she and my grandfather brought my mother and uncle from Taiwan to the U.S. in the 70s for the single purpose of pursuing a better education for them. Even in her old age, she cannot resist doing work around the house to stay busy. She stands at the sink washing dishes even as her body aches and both my mother and grandfather ask her to rest. Po po brings cooked dishes over for us every week—braised pork belly, tofu vegetable dishes, and more—and tries to start conversations with me despite my uncomfortable Chinese, my response sentences lopped off at the throat in reductions to their simplest form.
In a sense, I have begun grieving for people who are still alive and with me. I grieve the end because I finally know when the end will be: unless my grandparents pass before I leave, I will say goodbye to them the day I board the plane for New York. Then, one or two or three semesters in, I will get a call in the middle of the week and hear a disembodied voice tell me one of them is gone. My final goodbye will not be a surprise. My goodbye could very well be in seven months. I don’t want to say it. I watch the mahjong wall grow shorter and shorter as we approach the final draw.
The other day I considered finally reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking—which has been sitting on my shelf for months—hoping it might say something useful for my own pre-grief. Instead of reading Didion, however, I watch Fran Lebowitz talk about New York with Martin Scorsese in his new Netflix series Pretend It’s a City. As the sky darkens outside my bedroom window, the Fran on the screen discusses public wall art at Penn Station and paying three times her budget for an apartment on a side of the city I can’t distinguish from the others. This is an effective distraction. It helps for me to look the future in the eye as directly as I can, letting myself believe I’ve already decided to stay in New York after college, that it’ll be everything Fran herself is—sharp and sardonic, willful and writerly, the greatest city in the world.
What doesn’t have to be a reality for me to worry about yet is Didion’s New York; that feeling of having stayed too long at the Fair. For now, I can imagine myself like Fran, holding so many stories about the Lever House construction and avoiding Fifth Avenue at all costs, strong opinions on every building and social norm in the city, and the ability to stand on top of the Hudson on the massive miniature model of Manhattan looking like the city truly belongs to me. I will be new enough to the city to have all of my romantic expectations negated and still young enough to reform them. I will have years to grow tired of New York, years to lose myself in the process, and years to find myself again after that.
Unlike Didion’s depressing Bildungsroman in New York, it is harder for me to see the beginnings of this period that I must now name in my brain as adolescence. The beginning simply doesn’t exist, the same way none of us remember ever distinctly beginning, but rather that if no one had ever told us there was a moment in time when we were born, we could go on believing we’d been around forever. It is, however, distinctly possible for me to see the end of this first Bildungsroman, my first body—its gaze bores into mine with a stubborn, lionlike intensity. It refuses to look away.
More than anything, mahjong is a game of trade-offs. Peng a set of three and throw out a useless nine-circle tile. Keep a drawn tile and discard one from a pair you already have. Begin your adult life in a real city and try not to think about eating Costco pastries in your grandmother’s kitchen as a child. Is it worth it? Once we’re exchanging plastic tokens at the end of the round, will you consider this the right choice?
In between rounds, I twist in my chair to check the faint digital clock on the microwave. The kitchen lights yellow our faces and the table, leaving tiles facing certain directions in the dark. We play until midnight or 1 A.M., until my po po gets too tired and wants to go to sleep. My mother closes the screen door softly as she steps into her rain-soaked sandals. Back in our own house, the hardwood feels unfamiliar under my feet. I go to bed without brushing my teeth, letting the taste of the day bleed into my sleep as I try not to think about the moment of sinking into unconsciousness.
Esther Sun is a Chinese-American writer from the Silicon Valley and a rising freshman at Columbia University. A Pushcart Prize nominee via Carve Magazine and Vagabond City, she has published poems in The Indianapolis Review, Cotton Xenomorph, CALYX Journal, and elsewhere.
Image: “A Number of Elements” by Andy Fogle