I just remembered something felt off as if malice was in the air.

Struggling between extreme awakeness and muddy consciousness, I grabbed my Octopus card, the all-functional metro card in Hong Kong, walked into my favorite Onigiri store and picked one out.

“M’goi san~!” Scrambling, I tore open the plastic wrapper and took a bite. The umami mayo within the crab burst in my mouth. I look around at this place so familiar to me. Every time I left Hong Kong and came back again, I found the city more humid and boiling than ever. It decided to stay this way despite being mid-December. Walking out onto the taxi platform, I saw my mother’s text pop out.

“Sorry dear, our car plate is having some problems, you’ll have to come back on your own. 🙁 Maybe call a taxi? It’s only around 20 minutes.”

“This is how you treat someone who has just experienced international flight?” I recklessly replied and stuffed the phone back. “And Dad hasn’t replied since forever.”

Fortunately, the taxi ride back to Jinhai was as easy as a breeze. I extended my hand out the window, embracing the rush of cool air. In a mesmerizing blur, the majestic mountains of Hong Kong painted fleeting, kaleidoscopic vistas that danced upon my fingertips before vanishing into the ether as I passed the border into the world of another city.

Dad hasn’t replied since forever.

Sure, it was not bad that he was not contacting me, at least not now.

Mom said he’s on a business trip, an awfully long one. I was presenting my ID to the officer when scenes replayed in my head like a bad song on repeat.

“You dimwit, I’ve spent so much on your education, and your brain still acts like a piece of shit.” My dad sat up as furrowed brows shot up sharply and pointed in my direction, just the usual way, whenever he was mad at me. It wasn’t the old rhetoric of “I’m just trying to help you” instead, it was internal aggravation, a tension that echoed loudly in the unspoken spaces between us. Before, I’d shed tears in response, but somewhere along the line, I grasped the source of his anger – a mirrored reflection of himself in me.

“If I’m a dimwit and it’s all in the genes, what does that imply?” I “admired” my success as he jumped up and tried to reach for a stick, a hanger, or something he could hold in his hands and teach me how Chinese filial piety gets passed down. 

But it was different. Even though I despised the times we shared passive aggression with each other, I would instantly feel guilty after saying these harsh words, and I knew he did too. It was as if this was the cruel way of love. 

“I’m sorry. I feel so bad that I yelled at you.” He would say.

At first, I would respond by saying, “You never change”, even though I felt equally guilty. However, as time passed, I felt less urgent to say what was on my mind and would respond instead to, “It’s okay. We all know you did not mean it.”

The only thing I received from him was before winter break started when I complained about living in a dorm and wished to live in a fancy apartment like some of my classmates. 

“You’ll get one too. Don’t worry. I’m all good. 🙂.” Being occupied by  finals, I didn’t even realize how much he stressed that “he is all good.” Looking back, “there are no 300 taels of silver buried hare,” instantly came to mind. This is a proverb meaning how a guilty person exposes themselves by stressing how innocent they are. 

So it was only when I got in my mom’s car at Jinhai Bay and saw her coworker in the front seat, that I realized something was wrong.

“Hi, Yo-yo a’yi,” I said, raising one eyebrow. “Well, what a novelty that you have company.”

“Yeah, she also wants to come fetch you.” My mom smiled as she drove on. It was the same as usual, me ranting about the baby that cried on the plane, failure to socialize back at school, or some random fact about one of my TAs. My mom would react with a laugh and say how I was too careful on some issues and careless on others. However, the intimate space in the car between the three of us ended quickly, because as I stepped in the front door, I saw unexpected figures. 

“She is back!” Grandma and Grandad rushed towards me and gave me a hearty bear hug. They usually live in my hometown Dongzhou, a city two hours away by flight, and very rarely come. Oddly, I saw Yoyo put her bag casually in the guest room and lay on the bed as if she lived there.

“We’re here because Dongzhou is too cold.” My grandma smiled as she held a bowl of Zhejiang-style Wontons with flakes of nori and dried shrimp on top. “Oh, Yoyo is staying with us. She could go shopping with you, isn’t that exciting?” I saw Mom walk past and begin unpacking my suitcase. Time to test my hypothesis. I took her phone as she took out the souvenirs I packed for my family.

“New phone? Looks nice,” I said, pretending to be oblivious.

“Yes.” She replied flatly. I clicked open her messages with my dad, then gasped. 

He hasn’t replied since November.

The next day, I awoke with a pounding headache from the residue of Zolpidem, the sleeping pill I had taken. I strained to piece together the evening before, trying to understand how I had managed to overcome the jet lag and frustration that had been plaguing me. As memories flashed through my mind, a sharp pang of agony sliced through my head. 

When my mom had come into my room to tell me it was time to prepare for bed, I had confronted her at my door.

“What actually happened to Dad?” I said, beat-by-beat. My mom looked down, her expression somber, before she lowered her voice and told me to follow her to the guest room.

What she said after she sat on the bed was:

“Your dad is remanded in custody.”

Though filled with guilt, the first thing that slipped out was actually, “I’m glad he’s not dead.”

Then, it was a few minutes of her comforting me and me trying to hold myself together until that string inside my heart held so much tension that it reached the breaking point, as it snapped and tears rolled down my cheeks uncontrollably.

“I couldn’t tell you back then, you had your finals, and I was too stressed to say or do anything. I apologize. Remember that day when you asked me to talk with you and I said I was busy with stuff in the office?”

“Yes.” I remember the frustration that day when I called my mom, only for her to hang up every two or three minutes. I had been so frustrated that I had eventually given up on trying to communicate.

“Well, the police came in to search for evidence…”

“Of what?”

“They were trying to find in the office any piece of evidence to prove him guilty.”

I remember taking my mother into my arms and giving her a hug. Both of us were speechless, she quietly accepted my foreign embrace, something not often seen in this household, or in Asia, generally speaking. I held her in my arms, something odd, but something I’ve learned from living in dorms and interacting with people with different traditions. It felt uncomfortable in the beginning, as if I stepped into someone’s private space, but the longer I held the more natural I felt, until it became a way to comfort the both of us. 

“Who knows?” I asked.

“Everyone except for you. You’re the last one. Oh, right, don’t tell your younger sister, she’s still too innocent for this.”

The truth of the story is when he was traveling North, he got arrested for some reason—a reason so vague and quite utterly ridiculous that even the lawyer struggled to replicate it to my mother.

Even that November text was a fraud. The smiley face and the tone, she replicated him in such a fashion that I, under the pressure of the exams, gave no second thought to what was happening. The last thing I knew, I was flipping from side to side on my bed, nose congested and eyes burning red from the tears even though my body felt absolute fatigue as she came in with a cup of water and a pill of Zolpidem and gently pressed it through my mouth. 

“It’ll be okay,” she patted me over the blanket, and then my recollection was interrupted again by an immense headache.

After twenty minutes, I walked into the living room fully dressed with some light makeup. Grandma laid nonchalantly on the couch with her iPad playing Mahjong, while Grandad stood outside on the balcony by the plants with a half-smoked cigarette between his fingers, looking at one of the newly ripped lemons. The living room was bathed in serene light as the sun gently streamed through the window, but something felt odd. By this time, my mom and Yoyo had gone to work and my sister to school. 

“You’re awake! Come get breakfast.” I smelled something savory and something dairy, probably the pork, corn and pea siu mai I had yesterday as a late-night snack with my typical breakfast of whole milk with a red date and some edible bird nest. I walked towards the dining room when something large came my way. I saw a large, brown paper box on the floor with corners crumpled in.

“What’s this?” I pointed towards the box.

“Oh, someone gave this to your dad as a present.” My grandma said. The corners of her mouth twitched, as though if she didn’t say anything, I would not know anything, and we could pretend that my mom had said nothing to me last night. “A box of apples.”

“Apples. Who still eats apples?” I smiled a little and proceeded to sit down and savor my breakfast. After jet lag everything could seem delicious.

“Well, Ping guo (Apple) are Ping an (safe and sound), they sound almost the same. It’s good luck.” Grandma sat down next to me. She had that mysterious smile that my mom always held, polite and seemingly approachable but distant at times. I remained silent, trying to figure out which part of the dim sum was peas, which were carrots and the actual meat, when she suddenly placed her hand on mine.

“You should stay strong. For your dad, your mom, and for you.” My grandma touched her chest, “It’s where the heart lies, Ping an, that matters.” Something in me clicked as teardrops rolled down slowly from my eyes, and I, for the first time today, thought about how I should survive this break. 

What should I do during this break? How can I not feel guilty when doing other things? 

Something scary entered my mind.

How did my mom get through this for a month and I didn’t find out?

How could I get this off my mind? 

Suddenly, a surge of intense feelings overwhelmed me and I found myself unable to contain the flood of emotions any longer, letting go of the pent-up sorrow and anguish that had been quietly building inside me.

Visual Credit: Dora Gao

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