“Marriage Backwaters (A Love Story)” by Shelley Wood

Shelley Wood is the winner of our Winter 2016-2017 Non-Fiction contest. 

We had traveled to South India to explore the famous Kerala backwaters, but we figured while in Kochi, we may as well visit Mattancherry Palace with its mural of Lord Krishna playing the flute while pleasuring eight milkmaids at once: six with six hands and two with his feet.

“His feet?” Tyler asks, his eyebrows hopping.

“His feet,” I repeat, pointing at our guidebook. We take a moment to gaze at one another, husband to wife, 13 years married.

Whoa.

Our guide, Jaisal, leads us through the building—a squat, whitewashed house that was a gift from the Portuguese to the Maharaja of Kochi in 1555. It is 97°F indoors with 76% humidity –our slow ooze through this musty palace feels as if through a toor daal, so thick and spicy is the air.

We drift past the colorful murals teeming with beasts and humans, a tangle of many-armed torsos and jumbled faces, trying to pick out the regular cabal of Hindu gods and goddesses –Vishnu with his conch, Shiva with his cobra. We’re keen to spot Krishna, easily identified by his blue complexion and deific dexterity with the milkmaids. But Jaisal begs us to pause before each painting, explaining that these murals are a series depicting the Ramayana, the epic love story of Rama and Sita.

Panel one depicts the three wives of Dasharatha with his three sons, one from each wife. In the second panel is Rama, one of the sons, banished from his father’s court for 14 years. The next features Rama’s faithful bride Sita, captured by the evil king Ravana who flew over from Sri Lanka in a flower helicopter.

We snap awake.

“Pardon?”

Jaisal nods, smiling. “Yes, a flower helicopter.” He knew this would get our attention. “Even at the very beginning, they had this kind of flower technology.”

I’m wilting. I don’t have the energy to press Jaisal on the finer mechanics of floral aeronautics any more than I can summon the enthusiasm to ask him whether he himself is married. This is my standard question –like all Westerners we’re fascinated by India’s arranged marriages.

***

Indeed, with every guide tasked with showing us the marvels of the subcontinent—on the long hours spent driving from city to city or strolling through the monuments and mosques—we’ve grilled them with questions, prying shamelessly into their marital history.

What I sense from their responses is a subtle lack of uxoriousness. Subir, our guide in Rajasthan was proud to the point of bursting over his two grown daughters, but questions about his wife he brushed aside. Avi, in Varanasi, shrugged when we asked his opinion on marrying for love. “No need”, he pronounced, swaying in the bow of the tattered dinghy he’d hired to shepherd us up and down the banks of the Ganges, the banks smudged by the smoke of funeral pyres. Couples can fall in love after they get married, he explained. And if they don’t? No problem, they just start a family sooner. Avi and his wife married young and swiftly had three children. “This is better,” he assured us. “Marrying young. Then the girls know what to think, you understand.” Seeing my blank face, Avi tried harder. “They have someone to follow,” he clarified. I shot a look at Tyler, who answered me with a wink.

Avi addressed the question to Tyler, not to me: “And you? Many children back in Canada?”

“None,” Tyler answers cheerfully, and Avi’s gaze, sad as the brown river, glides over to me pityingly. I look away.

Later a man with Bollywood eyes, and a silk-weaving company that had been in his family for generations, coaxed us successfully towards the purchase of some overpriced scarves. During the performance of flinging out and layering piece after piece of exquisite fabric—saris, shawls, and stoles—on the floor of his shop the man said: “This is the difference between India and America. In America, you hang beautiful things on your walls. In India, everything beautiful we hang on our wives.”

At the time, we laughed. How true, we murmured, how lovely. But later the silk-seller’s comment sneaks back and riles me: the objectification and imbalance. Where is the to-and-fro, the mutual respect, a place for choice and partnership? Or, I reasoned, would I feel differently if I, too, could be a wife so revered and inscrutable? I can’t be sure. What if this was the only world I’d ever known?

But my unease tags along with us, a sulky sightseer. It doesn’t help that we are visiting fortress after historic fortress, each with lavish rooms built for wife-one, wife-two, wife-three –none of whom were permitted to leave their quarters. At the Amber Palace, the Raj had 12 secret corridors leading to the separate chambers of each of his 12 wives so he could come and go unobserved. At Fatehpur Sikri, the emperor had a life-sized game of Parcheesi installed in his courtyard, where he used real women from his harem as game pieces.

“And can you guess what his prize was if he won?” our grinning guide ribs my husband: wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

Our genial chaperones must see me frowning from time to time and inevitably turn our questions around: how long have we been married? How many children? Our answer—13 years, no children—makes their eyes turn soft with confusion. “One dog,” we tell them at first. Then we realize, in India, where tatty mutts skulk through the streets like drug-dealers, this answer has no connection to the question. And this, it seems, may be one spidery thread linking everything that seems so unfathomable in India to the world we know back home. Because even in North America, some of our closest friends don’t understand that our dog, who we chose over human offspring, has been woven densely into our first-world, childless love for all these many years.

***

In Mattancherry Palace, Jaisal is doing his best to hold our interest through each of the Ramayana murals. Towards the end, he tells us, Rama ends up trooping over to Sri Lanka via Adam’s Bridge, built by monkeys across the Gulf of Mannar, ultimately slaying Ravana and rescuing his beloved Sita. I’m charmed by the story, particularly since this legendary couple had been married 14 years before Rama set out to save Sita. I turn a blind eye to the lower corner of the penultimate panel, which depicts Sita seemingly squatting in a Hibachi leaping with flames to prove her chastity to Rama. I want to believe in this love story, just as I’d also like to see the many-limbed Lord Krishna giving his eight milkmaids their due until he’s blue in the face.

Alas, we never get to see it. This particular scene is in a downstairs gallery, closed for renovations. There are no postcards of this painting in the gift shop, and I’m too chicken to hazard an Internet search of “Mattancherry Palace Krishna pleasuring maids” for fear of what Google might turn up.

***

The next day, we head out from Kochi onto the Kerala Backwaters —a warren of lazy waterways lined with soaring coconut trees and rice paddies. Fleets of houseboats thatched with palm fronds glide languidly past kids being paddled to school, mothers laundering clothes on the steaming banks. Some houseboats are ferrying foreign tourists like us, but the backwaters have also become a popular destination for Indian honeymooners.

In the scorching afternoon, we step into a slim and tippy skiff to tour the narrower channels that serve as paths between the homes. Another couple joins us: newlyweds from Tamil Nadu, married in a ceremony just three days ago.

The couple endures our nosiness politely. Yes, they are very happy together. No, they hadn’t met before they wed. They are both engineering professors, only at different universities. They beam at this detail, as if it is proof of their compatibility. Side by side on their narrow bench, bobbing in the current, they could be newlyweds in Venice or Disneyworld, awed at the prospect of a life together –whatever it might bring. I think: who am I to presume their marriage might end up anything lesser than my own?

Later in the canal, we come across a snake, thick as a bicep, floating on the surface—dead or sunning itself, it’s not clear. The sight of it causes the Indian man to spring up, rocking the boat, then cower towards his new wife, who looks on amused. “I’m very afraid of snakes!” he tells us, unnecessarily. Then he turns to his wife and repeats himself more tenderly since this is new information for her as well. Everything is. My dear, I am very afraid of snakes.

***

Door to door, it takes five flights and 42 hours for us to return from Kerala to the Pacific Northwest. We are somewhere in the flight path over Myanmar when our beloved dog, back home, is rushed to the vet and diagnosed with a fatal mass that is bleeding internally –terminally.

He holds on until we get back, cradling him like a toddler while he bellows with pain. Our second night home, he collapses in his blood-red urine. Our minds are a thick clot of jet lag, insomnia, and anguish by Friday when the kindest vet that ever walked the earth comes to our house to help our old boy die. After the vet leaves, my husband turns to me with a face so stripped and raw with shock and grief I’d do anything in my power to keep more hurt from getting at him.

Here is our own Ramayana mural. In panel one, a childless couple flies over the sea in a flower helicopter, hurrying back for a stricken creature that is part child, part beast. In the next, a medical man is carrying a bundle of soft fur and old bones wrapped in a brown fleece blanket out to a chariot in the driveway. In the third and final panel: the man and woman are standing as one, husband and wife, bodies clenched so tightly together they’re a single torso leeched of color, weeping on both faces, four tangled arms holding on for dear life.

The woman says: “India feels like a million years ago.”

The man’s face is contorting against her shoulder –she can feel it– wet with tears, his mouth opening and closing, no sound coming out. Finally, he manages: “We went to India?” And they stand there, shaking with sobs or laughter—it doesn’t matter which, so long as they can just keep standing.

“Probed” by Ellyn Gelman

“Probed” by Ellyn Gelman is the second place winner of our Fall Non-Fiction Contest.

pregnant-1427856_1920I hit the snooze button on top of the digital clock. 6:30 AM. My husband, Dan, reached around my belly and pulled me up against him and we spooned in silence until the snooze alarm sounded. Married for ten years, together for fifteen, I knew every bit of his thirty-four-year old body as intimately as I knew my own. His morning erection pressed up against my backside, the sport scent deodorant he applied with exactly five swipes in each armpit every morning, the dark hair on his forearms that ended precisely where his hairless hands began. Even the smell of his breath after a night of snoring was familiar and oddly comforting.

“Do you want me to go with you today?” I felt his words in my hair just above my right ear lobe and a tiny feather from the quilt rose up and rode on the waves of his voice.

“No, I’ll be fine. It’s just an ultrasound,” I said as I slid out of bed and walked to the bathroom. “I’ll call you this afternoon when it’s over.”

“Let’s see what we have here.” The radiology technician flicks the light switch to darken the room. I think she’s told me her name but I can’t remember. Fresh cigarette smoke wafts from her as she types my age—thirty-four—date of last menses—no clue.  The smell stirs a familiar craving in the part of my brain that refuses to forget nicotine, despite four years of abstinence and a solemn pact with God to never smoke again.

I shiver, naked from the waist down.

“Here we go,” the tech says as she inserts the transvaginal probe. The top of her head hovers between my legs, right above my bent knees that have been draped with a white sheet. The demarcation between her dark roots and bleached tufts reminds me of sea grass in late autumn.

It has been four weeks since our embryonic transfer. The probe ignores my tender, hyper-stimulated ovaries. Five weeks ago this same probe searched for the number of ovum (eggs) my ovaries had produced—the final tally was twenty. Today the probe’s high frequency sound waves search only for a fetal heartbeat.

I shift my gaze to the random pattern of pinholes, and short, gray, wavy lines on the white ceiling above me. Hormones have wreaked havoc on my emotions, and, without warning, my eyes fill with tears that cause the pattern on the dropped ceiling to become a watery distortion that looks like slow-moving sperm. Hot tears trail down my temples and puddle in my ears.

The pressure of the probe increases, as does my discomfort. I remind myself to breathe.

Dan and I are thirty-four years old and we have been mired in this world of infertile baby making for ten years. This is our second and last attempt to have another child. I cannot put my body through this again—hormone shots, needle-aspirated egg retrievals, embryo transfers (if we’re lucky), and the mind-numbing disappointment of a negative pregnancy test.

“Here it is,” said the technician.

I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand and lift myself onto my elbows to get a better look at the black and white monitor.

“How many embryos were transferred?”

“Five,” I said. I don’t tell her that three of the five embryos were identified as fair, two were considered good, or that the last time we tried IVF we transferred three embryos—one fair, two good—and none of them implanted. I don’t tell her that our first cycle of IVF resulted in only one fair embryo, and that he’s three years old now, and I especially don’t tell her that I feel greedy for wanting another child.

“I found a heartbeat,” she says.

Rapid-fire goose bumps tingle in my scalp and spread to my limbs like champagne bubbles. I hear the magnified watery heartbeats, and, when I spot the tiny pulse on the screen, I can’t help but laugh out loud. Elated, I begin to relax.

The tech discovers another heartbeat, separate from the one I had been looking at.

Oh my God—twins. This is so exciting. Dan should be here.

“I think there’s more,” she says.

“No, no more,” I said as the beats of my heart pound in my head.

She pulls out the probe and instructs me to empty my bladder, in order for a better look.

I wrap the white sheet around my waist and slide zombie-like off the table to the attached restroom. The fear I have managed to suppress begins to unfurl and spreads to my gut. I sit with elbows on knees, face in hands long after I’m empty. Maybe more? Does she mean three? Four? All five? What if there are five babies growing inside me? The tech knocks on the door and asks if I’m okay. I splash water on my face and dab it with a paper towel before I return to the table and assume the position.

There are three tiny hearts beating in my womb, each one given a generic obstetric code—A, B and C.

The relief that there are not five embryos diminishes the anxiety that there are three.

“So what are you going to do?” the tech says as she cleans and readies the probe for the next patient.

“What do you mean?”

“Are you going to keep all three?” She says that some patients with multiple embryos choose to selectively abort one or two. Her casual disregard irritates me.

“What I think,” I say, “is that I’m going to have triplets.” I pull on my elastic-waist pants and slide my feet into my shoes. Despite my use of the towel, I have no control over the excess lubricant that begins to leak from me and soak my white cotton underwear. Dan calls my underwear big ole cotton jobs. I try to remember if the gel was clear or if it had a color that will leave behind a stain. Without another word, I exit the room that reeks of organized science and out into a new domain of random chaos.

It is cold dark outside, and I wander around the parking lot until I locate my Honda Accord. I sit with the ignition key in my hand. It’s not that I don’t want three babies. I would love to have three more babies, just not all at once. I hit the steering wheel with the palm of my hand, and let loose a single desolate sob, “Triplets?” I’ll never take triplets to term. I had pre-eclampsia with my first baby and he had to be induced two and a half weeks early. I reach for a crumpled brown napkin I left behind on the passenger seat, and blow my nose.

Dan and I knew the risks when we decided to transfer all five embryos. How does one choose which embryo to transfer and which to leave behind? We knew that transferring all five embryos would increase our odds for another baby, one baby, and if we were really lucky, maybe twins. Four weeks ago, it felt right to transfer all five embryos. Today I feel selfish, a bit greedy..  It is almost six-thirty. I need to get home to my little boy and my mother who is looking after him. Dan is expecting me to call him at work with the results. I rest my forehead on the steering wheel but I can’t stop the tears. I guess the joke is on me, God…I prayed for babies and I got babies. I take a deep breath and call Dan on my recently installed car phone. He picks up on the fourth ring.

“Guess what?” I say, “We’re having triplets.”

“Lessons” by Karen Chen

“Lessons” by Karen Chen is the winner of our Fall 2016 Non-Fiction Contest. 

It was 7 A.M. August morning. My mother called home. She spoke too loudly, the way she always did over the phone, as if I couldn’t hear her over the U.S.-Canadian border between us.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Mom.”

She was quiet for a moment. “Your aunt passed last night.”

The word for passed in Mandarin is outwardly deceiving. The words literally meant that Aunt walked away, but I knew what my mother really meant and that this sort of walk was something people didn’t return from.

“Okay,” I said stupidly. “When are you coming home?”

“Soon.” She hung up. It was the first time she answered that question with something other than “I don’t know.”

My father wandered into the kitchen, bleary-eyed with his shirt untucked. “Who called?” he yawned.

“Mom,” I said. “She said Aunt Anqi passed.” My voice grew quieter with every word, until “passed” was only a semblance of a whisper.

He paused for a second with his hand on the coffee maker. “We knew it would happen soon,” he sighed, letting his arm rest on the counter as the rest of him slumped against it.

I nodded with dry eyes and sat down at my desk. It was my birthday. I was finally sixteen years old. Neither my father nor I mentioned it.

***

My father has a sister as well, but Aunt Anqi (pronounced ahn-chee) was the aunt I saw the most often and spent the most time with. On paper, I just write her name down as Aunt, because to me, she is the most important one.

My family stayed at her house whenever we took trips to China. She would often feed me cookies and fruit gummies from the local market. At six years old, I proclaimed during dinner that Aunt’s cooking surpassed my mother’s, which left Aunt jubilant and my mother disgruntled. “Eat more,” Aunt encouraged happily, pushing plates toward me. I always did. Later, for dessert, we would break peanuts out of their shells and talk. I would tell her about school back in America; she would try to teach me quicker ways to remove the peanut shells and nag at the way I sat in my chair. “Sit up straighter. All young ladies need good posture.”

Aunt kept her curls perfectly coiffed each day, and when I stayed with her, I found her in the bathroom combing black dye into her white hairs on a regular basis. “She cares too much about her appearance,” my mother would say dismissively, carrying the gray and white in her own hair proudly. “Who cares if she has some white hair? She’s in her sixties.”

Aunt would swat my mother with her arm. “It’s important for a young lady to always look presentable,” she sniffed. “You should teach your daughter that as well.” And she would turn to me, the corners of her lips lifting into a satisfied smile. “Isn’t that right?”

It lifted my spirits to see Aunt driving my mother to speechlessness, a feat I’ve never accomplished. “Yes, of course you are right,” I had said. I let Aunt smooth out the wrinkles in my shirt and push my shoulder blades back as my mother shook her head. I never thought about why Aunt treated me the way she did, only that sometimes she stood up for me when no one else did.

That same year, Aunt and I made egg tarts together for the first and last time. She demonstrated how to whisk the eggs, leaning her bowl to the side and aggressively whipping the chopsticks against the porcelain edges. “Your mother never taught you? Well, it’s about time you learned,” she grumbled. “Six years old and you still don’t know how to do anything in the kitchen.” I mimicked Aunt’s smooth motions as perfectly as I could, but still she leaned over to clasp her hands over mine. “No, more like this. Yes, good, you’re learning.”

When the egg tarts came out of the oven, they tasted bland and lacked a sufficiently firm texture, but they were the first things I had ever baked. I glowed with pride. Aunt clucked her tongue and reprimanded, “Hold the tray with both hands; it’s going to fall.”

***

The Last Trip with Aunt happened thirteen months before she died. I had wanted to go to math camp instead.

Even though I pleaded for my parents to let me spend my summer upstate surrounded by shapes and formulas, they forced me to go on a summer trip with them, Aunt, and my cousin. “We bought tickets months ago,” my parents argued. With regret, I tucked away my math camp application forms and got ready to go on the road.

These summer trips together were a tradition; the same group of us traveled together annually to places all around North America – a tour of Yellowstone National Park, a weeklong stay on a small boat in Toronto. That summer, we went to Vancouver and the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Aunt walked along the roads with me, admiring the mountains high up in the distance. Right before the trip, the doctors in China had reported that she was fit enough to travel with us. Her cheeks glowed as she trod along the path.

In the middle of the Last Trip, my mother injured her arm carrying too many suitcases up to the hotel rooms. She sank into an armchair and winced with pain. The medicine patch on her arm smelled like chemicals and the remains of something that had broken apart.

When my mother had fallen asleep, her injured arm resting over the other, Aunt took me aside. “Do you see what happened to your mother?” Her voice was serious and stern. “All because you didn’t help her with those heavy suitcases.

“You are going to be the reason your mother dies early.”

For hours, I hugged my knees, shaking uncontrollably. I was an ugly crier, the sort that cried in rushes and storms.

I told my cousin, who screamed at her mother, “Why would you tell her that? That’s going too far.”

“She needed to know,” Aunt barked back. “She’s constantly ignorant and unaware of what’s happening around her.”

“You always say these sorts of stupid things!” my cousin, who was an adult in her thirties, shrieked. “How tactless can you be?”

When my mother woke up, she rubbed my back and said it’s okay, don’t worry, it’s not your fault. That night at dinner, my aunt and my cousin sat on opposite sides and ignored each other as they reached across the table for food. That was the first time I noticed the rift between them. But I began to remember all those times, months earlier, when my aunt and cousin had refused to eat food the other had cooked, each silently declaring the other’s food to be inferior to her own. There were all those times when my cousin screamed at her mother, “You stay in my house and do nothing, but you’re still unsatisfied with everything!”

“I can’t do anything because you’re always unsatisfied with everything I do.” Aunt’s voice was as stiff as the curls in her hair.

When I saw my cousin and Aunt together in Canada the next summer, Aunt was already in the hospital. There was no one left at home to bear the brunt of my cousin’s explosive anger, which had been whittled away by fear and despair. I was sad to see it go.

***

When Aunt went for a checkup right before the Last Trip, the doctors gave her the same diagnosis as always: she had high blood sugar but was healthy.

Eight months later, she went for another checkup. This time, the doctors told her she had cancer, and that it had spread to her liver.

There had been no visible physical symptoms of her illness. Everything thought she was healthy, including her, until it turned out she wasn’t.

She flew to Canada so that the doctors there who specialized in liver cancer could give her treatment.  They all said, It’s too late. I’m sorry, it’s too late.

***

My mother and cousin had always complained about Aunt – little things, like she’s haughty, she’s vain, she’s so stubborn. That didn’t change after Aunt was admitted to the hospital in Canada, but their insults were more blunt than barbed. “She didn’t want to take a walk outside her hospital room because she didn’t want the other patients to see her in her hospital gown,” my mother said half-heartedly after returning from visiting Aunt one day. “How typical.” I had gone with her, but I said nothing.

It was early August. The whole family knew Aunt didn’t have more than a month left.

***

After being discharged from the hospital, Aunt came home for a little bit. She spent all her time in bed, drifting between sleep and wakefulness. The room smelled like illness – an expired, bitter smell. My cousin and I made chicken soup and brought it upstairs to her.

Aunt was getting thinner every week. Her veins protruded from her arms, which had become a sickly yellow and shook as she held the spoon. “Too salty,” she rasped. For the first time, my cousin bit her lip and said nothing, just headed back downstairs to remake the soup. I stayed with Aunt. She opened her mouth, as if to say something to me, but she only coughed. Her small hand sat like stone in mine, her fingers fluttering like a heartbeat.

***

Aunt had never lived in our house before. I had lived in hers, and we both had lived in her daughter’s house in Canada, but she never had the chance to stay with us.

Two months before Aunt was diagnosed with cancer, my mother invited her to stay with us the coming summer. “Come to New York,” she offered. “It’ll be fun.”

“Sure,” my Aunt snarked. “I’ll come and see just how poorly you do housework.”

Of course, she never did. By early summer, she was already thin and bedridden. By late summer, she was already dead.

***

Aunt passed away in her sleep. It was August 2015. She was only in her sixties, everyone murmured. How regretful.

I never cried over her death. Instead, I began to stand straighter. I pushed my chest out and my shoulders back. Whenever my mother cooked dinner, I hurried over to help her with the easy tasks, like sauteing the vegetables or beating egg yolks. And I kept my hair looking presentable; I didn’t have Aunt’s coiffed curls, but I made sure to brush my hair daily and use water to pat down loose strands that stuck up before I left the house. For me, remembering Aunt was remembering the lessons she taught me, no matter whether they were right or wrong. They were little things, but I performed every small task meticulously and methodically.

I was the only one who acted differently after Aunt’s passing. My cousin conducted her business as she always did, occasionally exploding into fits of anger and sharp-edged words. My mother continued to let her white hairs grow. I alone mourned by changing.

During the long winter months following Aunt’s death, I thought about how Aunt taught me those lessons as a way of teaching me how to grow up. How to become a woman. I tried to do both of those things for her, because it was all I could do, because I was the only person left to do them.

Slowly, she began to vanish from my memories. I relied on pictures to remember her face, the way her hair was shaped, how she smiled with tight lips and no teeth. I became confused, unable to discern what exactly I had felt for her: grudging respect or annoyance, melancholy or apathy. Or maybe it wasn’t confusion; maybe I had just never known in the first place.

***

In February, six months after she died, I realized that the image of Aunt in my mind solely consisted of the things she told me. A lot of things that should have been obvious were question marks in my head; whether she was a good person, whether I loved her. She wasn’t the kindest person, I thought. But I liked her. I liked eating with her, talking about school with her, having her pay attention to the way I walked and the way I did things.

I had tried to honor Aunt’s memory the best way I could, the way I thought would please her most – one adult carrying on another’s legacy as a remembrance of their familial relation. But every time I completed an action the way she had taught me, it felt methodical to the point that it felt meaningless. Between the two of us, I was the ghost, wandering through each task aimlessly. Aunt had never been transparent to me, because I was the one who never tried to see through her.

Sometimes I stopped, the brush still stuck in my hair, wondering if that was the right way to mourn. It wasn’t the manifestation of longing or desolation or an emotion I felt I should have been consumed by. I didn’t feel what my mother and cousin must have felt, as a sister and daughter respectively. I had learned and memorized Aunt’s lessons, thinking I was becoming an adult, but I was still just a little girl wrapped up in her own world, unable to see what was happening around her.

Still selfish, I thought. The words were bitter in my mouth. Aunt tried to help me change, but she was an adult and I am not and I am still waiting to grow up but she’s not there to help me. I knew her lessons but I didn’t know her, and now it was too late.

***

For months, I wondered why I was the one Aunt imparted her knowledge to, and now I think I found the answer.

These were the harshest words Aunt ever said to me: “You are going to be the reason your mother dies early.” Maybe that is the way Aunt spoke to her daughter and younger sister their whole lives. Perhaps those words formed the backdrop of their childhoods.

I remember my mother and cousin’s complaints. My cousin and aunt’s constant fighting. You’re vain, you’re picky. It must have stemmed from something deeper. Perhaps the cause was Aunt’s morals, which she stuck so closely to but ultimately drove her away from her loved ones. And then I think about how serious Aunt had been whenever she spoke to me, how her eyes had lit up when I complimented her cooking over my mother’s.

Oh, I think. She must have been so sad. She must have been lonely.

***

The room is silent. It is 8 P.M. on a warm summer night in New York. I am peeling peanuts at the dining table by myself. It is July, which means that my seventeenth birthday is in a few weeks. The one year mark is rapidly approaching, and with it comes a memory – one of the lost ones.

“Anqi, where are the cups?” my mother asked.

“Anqi, we are going outside for a walk,” my father called.

We were staying at Aunt’s home in China. I was six. “Anqi, Anqi,” I chanted. “Anqi, can you pass the bowl of cherries?”

My mother smacked me lightly upside the head. “Hey! You can’t call your aunt Anqi,” she reprimanded. “That’s her first name. It’s Chinese etiquette that only adults call other adults by their first names.”

Now I roll the syllables around in my mouth, tasting them. “An-qi,” I say aloud. The words sit awkwardly on my tongue, but they don’t feel foreign. A strange feeling tugs at my heart – the knowledge of something lost, something leaving – but the words seem almost visible and tangible hanging in the air, almost as if I could peel away their shell with one stroke to reveal what hides inside. I watch my aunt’s name even after it disappears, drifting away in a gentle breeze, passing by, passing on.