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Volume 1 Issue 2: Reality

"Womb? Weary? He rests. He has travelled."

—Ulysses, James Joyce

* Guangzhou, 1999-2016

She walked to the bus station with a drink in her hand.

It was the middle of the summer. The sun hang in the sky, bursting heat and energy. Glaringly. Violently. The typical summer in the subtropical. Suffocating dampness. On the bus you could see men and women’s clothes had an embarrassing mark in the armpits.

She was on her way home. The school closed early because of the midterm exams. She bought a drink from the local shop as usual. Brown sugar milk. Cold without ice.

There was an unexpected scene in school today.
The kapok flowers flew away from the ceiba trees and fluttered in the wind. It was like snowing, which never happened in this subtropical city in the south of the country. A kapok flower dance in the air would be the closest thing to snow that the student could imagine of. The students were excited. They stopped listening to the class, bent over the windows in order to catch some of the kapok in the air. But they couldn’t. The flowers just flew and flew away, disappearing in the air like the snow.

She was on her way home. She knew her grandfather would be waiting in the living room as usual reading the newspaper with his presbyopic glasses on because it was Friday. Her grandfather always came to visit her on Friday with the presbyopic glasses on.
She knew he would ask her to play a song on the piano for him and she, always too ashamed of her piano skills and too annoyed of how people expected her to play for them all the time, would refuse.
And then she would leave the living room and walk into her own room.
She would still be able to hear the sound of her grandfather flipping through the newspaper and forcing some imperceptible sighs in her room but she would stay there until he left.

She didn’t know how to talk to her grandfather and she didn’t know how to talk to her father, either; her father didn’t know how to talk to his father, either.
The communication issues were everywhere in the family.

She and her father remained silent when they had dinner together because otherwise they would be fighting. She had learned how to suppress her own thoughts so that her father wouldn’t just suddenly leave the table and leave the house and leave her sitting there alone with the food.
Both of them remained silent as well when she did not win a title in the piano competitions. When she walked down from the stage and looked to her father she knew she could not expect anything other than silence. She grew up learning the silence had meant disappointment that needed not be emphasized again by verbal expression.

She was not unhappy. She expected nothing.
Life just went on like this forever.

Paris, 2017-2018

She stepped on the train. The woman with violet lipstick spoke. It was French. She got excited and confused for a moment.
It was French spoken from a French woman on a French underground train. She almost fainted. How could she not? It was the first time that she heard French that was not coming from a phone podcast app or some bizarre international radio.

She ran in the park every day.
She ran every day and she noticed the changes in the color and shape of the leaves. In the middle of October the leaves were still green with a little yellow, but they had suddenly turned all yellow and red and grew dim and withered in the wind of the middle of November. She never saw such changes in the trees in her hometown. The trees in her hometown had only two colors: light green and dark green. She was fascinated with the colors. Yellow, orange, red, brown, amber, vermilion, gold.
She ran every day and watched the parents and children and elders feed the black swans that were always drifting in the lake.
She had never seen a black swan before. Neither had she run in a park with so many trees, plants, people, and animals. Her life was barren. She ran every day and bumped into classmates who were reading sitting on the bench near the lake.
They said hi to each other, and she kept running, sucking the cold air into her lung as if she had never had the opportunity to enjoy such freshness. The coldness rubbed against her throat like an insensible knife.

Sometimes she tried to recall the days before Paris and the memories had grown into a haze.
She thought of the piano teacher who was cruel and unkind, who lashed out at her when she did not get the chords right, when she did not understand music theories that one should understand as a young pianist.
She was relieved when she realized there was no one to push her to play the piano anymore.
She thought of her silent conversations with her father on the phone.
They had nothing to talk about. She lived in a world he could not reach out to; he lived in a world she did not want to go back to.

She and her best friend went to see the Louvre in the morning.
It was eight o’clock on a winter morning and the sky just started to break from the darkness. The sky was overcome by the heaviness of the blue. The blueness stretched away from the sky and poured itself down to the buildings, buses, and shadows of people on the streets. She caught her own image in the flashes on the window. Her hair had grown long and wavy, shining in the first ray of sunlight.
But the image of herself in her mind still remained as the adolescent girl with a ponytail that lacked luster and character, just like herself.
The two images did not overlap.
She suddenly fell into a sleepiness and was perplexed by its abruptness.

On the last day of school in Paris she stood on the street with her best friend, each holding a chocolate and banana crepe in their hands. The trees were shining in the sunlight, cars and people crossing through each other, the sky high and blue and cloudless. She smiled and turned to her friend.
—I think I will never take a good look at Paris like this again and I’ve never thought that I would be eating a crepe at the same time.
—How would this be the last time you could always come back.
But something would be different then. She thought.

New York, 2018-2019

She was confused and tired all the time.
She felt like she had lived all her life as an outsider even to her own life.
She watched people talk and talk and talk and could not figure out the meaning of their sentences.
Why do people have to talk when their words have no meaning at all?
That was her question.

She did not know why some of her friends could be so happy and relaxed all the time.
At least it was what it seemed like.
She was always so tense and anxious, but accomplishing nothing in her life.
She did not know why.

She started to think back to the hazy days. She wondered how she felt like she had come a long way but in reality she was just walking on the treadmill. She only wanted to know why.
She remembered she used to read ancient Chinese history when she was a kid.
She studied modern Chinese and world history and US history in the secondary school.
She got praised for her writing and reading comprehension skills all the way through different school systems. One day she got selected to participate in a writing competition and the competition asked her to write an essay on the theme of farewell.
She sat there for a moment and remembered her grandfather’s funeral.
She remembered the scent of magnolia in her grandfather’s house.
She remembered her father crying like a child at the funeral.

She never saw her father revealing his emotions in the public without any reserve.
She remembered the days when her grandfather used to walk to her house to visit her and to ask her to play the piano for him. She suddenly understood why.
So she wrote about her grandfather.
And never heard back from the wiring competition again.
Just like those piano competitions she never got any recognitions from.

From that moment on she lost the appetite for writing.
The teacher sensed something but said nothing helpful.
Anyway it was time for her to focus on preparing the high school entrance exam and she paid most of her attention to maths and sciences instead of Chinese or history.
The week she took the high school entrance exam she travelled to another side of the city to take the exam in the morning, and went back home, slept, and kept reading some pulp fictions in the afternoon and night when her parents thought she was reviewing materials for the exam.
Nobody knew what she was doing or thinking, not even herself.

She only realized she missed out so much in school long after she graduated, every time.
Her primary school friends said to her one day when they were both 18,
—You were always so distant and wanted to stay alone we didn’t know how to play with you.
Her secondary school friends said to her one day when they were both 19,
—You were always so distant and wanted to stay alone we didn’t know how to play with you.
Her high school friends said to her one day when they were both 20,
—You were always so distant and wanted to stay alone we didn’t know how to play with you.
Nobody said anything anymore to her now because everyone was away from everyone.

She was always timid to speak in public, and always more upset that she could have said something in the occasion and not to embarrass anyone.
Everything demanded her attention. Every detail, action, body language, expression in one’s eye, the way the mouth moves, tone, feeling, emotion, atmosphere, environment. The sensitivity was consuming her unknowingly.

Someone talked about having a hard time to engage with the book in her James Joyce class because there seems to be lacking a driving force.
She wondered why everything has to have a driving force and cannot just be there because it is there.
Like all the time her brain had these unorganized and unconnected thoughts that she did not know how to put away.
She wondered when she would read Ulysses the second time.
Like she wondered when she would ever visit Paris the second time.
She did not know why she had connected these two things together but she knew that
—Because everything would be different then.

As for the text’s meaning, that’s the task intentionally left for the readers by all the writers. Writers only write, they do not explain. James Joyce did not explain why he put this word here and there.

She left for the airport alone.
New York was dark without the lights on. It was the last day of 2019.
She dragged the luggage case with her, it was dark. It was snowing.

She walked in the snow that had turned into rain; her phone vibrated in her pocket.
—Your granduncle just passed away.
The message read. It was from her father.
—He asked about you before he passed away. He asked if it was snowing in New York and if you were cold.

It was snowing. It was cold.

You cannot cry immediately when you know somebody you know has died. Even when it is someone close to your family.
You cry only when you realize you never get to see that person in your life again so many nights after he has passed away. Never. The word does not allow any room for possibility or imagination.
And you suddenly remember the details of the last time you saw him.
Like the last time you saw many people, many places, many books that you thought you could go back to as long as you wish.
And you cry even though you have known death only too familiar.

She followed the line in the airport and was suddenly sickened by all the sights, smells, and lights.
She was struck by a sudden attack of tiredness. She almost fell down to the floor.
That was her last memory of New York and 2019.

Now/here, 2020

Yes it is 2020 now and I am in nowhere.
I am sitting on a bed that does not belong to me. I am in other people’s home writing a story of my own. It’s ironic that at this moment I finally feel like I have got back some control of my life. But I am still so confused about life.

Everything is nice and fragrant when you first look back in your memory. You forget the violence, forget the cruelty, forget the coldness, the darkness, forget the banality of everyday life.
You pick up these moments and fragment of your life and you comfort yourself with the sweet- scented memories. Then you sit down to look at the story again you realize you have missed out so many inconvenient details.

I wrote down these broken pieces in my life and relied on them to make up a “life” on their own.
To make up a self that I was, am, and will never ever be.
What can be written down is already lost in time.
At this point I realize I am still writing that competition essay from many years ago.
I am writing Farewell; I am writing how to say goodbye to so many things, places, books and people in my life. Some of them will never show up in my life again but they have made up the life that I have lived till this point; they had made up who I am till this point I write down their stories.

The truth is, I dreamt of my grandfather again this morning.
We were having dinner together in a house.
I sat at the table watching him watching the tv with international news on without saying anything to me.
And then I left without saying anything to him and he turned around to look at me and opened his mouth.
I heard nothing.
Then I woke up.
The room seemed so empty.

Keep reading:
Volume 1 Issue 2: Reality