Voices on the New Diasporas - an MIT student journal

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I'm Not Really Sleeping

by Anonymous

I think he can sense it emanating from me—a sick, raging poison hidden beneath my skin. He shifts uneasily on the other end of my small couch, searching my expressionless face for some kind of sign. Closing my eyes, I imagine the venom trickling through my veins, gathering in the pit of my stomach, coiling into a tight hardness in the center of my chest. From my corner, I study him with a sudden indifference, disregarding his outstretched hand, his stammered apology. Please, he begs. Talk to me. Please, don't look at me like that. He gazes up at me with limpid blue eyes –a beautiful, foreign blue, set off perfectly by long lashes—before staring back down at the ground.


Do you remember? asks a tiny, mocking voice in my head. Of course I do. And?


From this distance, the dizzying thrill of new infatuation begins to fades. Just moments ago, I'd been captivated by his nearness, swept up by romantic murmurings and phrases suddenly made intensely, delicately new. Let him kiss me, let him pull me closer while his hands roved over my body, fingers gathering and gripping the fabric of my clothes. My stomach turned almost painfully. I wondered if it was desire or disgust that I felt, mingling with this confused sense of guilty pleasure. He took my hand and slid it down across the front of his jeans. "You arouse me," he whispered, pressing my hand against him there. I jerked it back, recoiling. From my end of the couch, I stare at the faint outline of my reflection in the TV. When I shift slightly, I disappear in the glare. I am a hollow shell, dissolving from the inside out.


I remember how all the lights in the house were off, except for the one in the kitchen. It stuck me as odd, and I paused momentarily before climbing out of the car. But then I was running up the driveway, cutting across the lawn, bounding with teenage abandon. Behind me, headlights sweep across the trees, briefly illuminating the neighbor's yard as the car backs out and drives away. I burst into the house. All my momentum disappears when I see my father standing there, waiting. I can see the dark, thunderous look on his face even in the dim light, and I feel the old, familiar panic rising: what have I done? My mind is racing. The silence seems to stretch out interminably. My brother suddenly appears behind him, and his subdued words bring an odd rush of relief: "A-An is missing," he says.

In the kitchen, my mom is sitting at the table, a crumpled napkin in her hand. Her eyes are red. My brother whispers to me, "You know how A-An was studying in Australia?"

"No, he was? Why did he go all the way to Australia to paint?"

"I don't know. Anyway, he went surfing with some friends and now they can't find him. So now the police are looking for him in the water. Mom was just talking to 3rd aunt."

Silence again. I give my mother an awkward hug. We sit, waiting for the phone to ring. The Australian host family is supposed to call, and I'm supposed to talk to them. "Your English is the best," says my brother. I glance at him, and let it go. I know he's just afraid of talking to people— his Mandarin is better, but that doesn't mean his English is any less fluent than mine. Normally, I might call him on that, but I'm surprised by how detached I feel. I observe my father, all grim stoicism, still standing in the doorway. My mother is still crying.


Repetitive images play over and over in my head, endless echoes rising unbidden from my memory. Do you remember? Of course I do. Sick. He makes me sick. Even an eight year old should've known. I make myself sick.


I remember how hard those bamboo mats were, how uncomfortable they were to sleep on. I lay awake at night and scratched my mosquito bites, trying not to scrape off the pink calamine lotion. In that humidity, it takes forever to dry. My brother and I are sleeping in a stuffy room with A-An and A-Jie, the two cousins closest to us in age. A-Jie is fat and cheerful; he and I play-fight while the others watch baseball on TV, laughing and yelling gleefully until 1st Uncle hushes us. A-An is older. He's seventeen, but he's already an undisputed genius, our privileged artist-in-residence. He slapped my hand today, hard, when I accidentally woke him up from his nap. He speaks to me as if I don't understand Chinese, taunting me in his poor English. When I don't respond, he calls me an "arrogant little American." He smiles at me. "Little bitch. Right? Bitch is correct word for you, means 'girl'?"

I pour my silent, wounded fury into my child's diary, seeking isolated refuge in the odd assortment of English books that Jia-Ying brings me: Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, a Chinese history textbook, and Garfield comics.

A-An lies on the mat next to mine. He whispers to me, Mei-mei? Little sister? I hate him. I pretend to be asleep. He touches my arm, lightly. I keep my eyes closed, continuing to breathe evenly and slowly. He strokes my arm, my shoulder, my hand. I remain perfectly still. It feels nice. He lifts my hand, gently moves it over to his side, still caressing my arm slowly, for what seems like ages.


I sat on the edge of my bed, in the dark. So he's missing, I thought. Am I supposed to feel guilty for not truly caring? I was on the phone with Australia for an hour, struggling to understand the woman's thick accent. "There's no news of Victor yet," she said, starting to cry. "They've got helicopters and divers out there searching for him now." I was confused for a moment, not knowing he'd gone by an English name there, surprised by this woman's outpouring of emotion for him. Do you know what he did? Do you remember?


I remember how carefully A-An moved, how he paused instantly whenever he thought I might wake. He lifts my hand slowly again, settling it gently onto something soft but firm. It's a little sticky. He closes my fingers around it. I feel a mild distaste, but I'm afraid to pull away. He'll know I'm not really sleeping.


My brother stuck his head into my room. "Are you going to bed already?" he asked, and flipped on the light, momentarily blinding me. "Oops, sorry…" He perched awkwardly on the edge of the chair, picking at the lint on his socks. He wants to know how I feel, to know if I'm upset at all, to absorb my opinion into his own. "He was an asshole, wasn't he?" my brother offers. "I don't know, do you feel bad at all for how we hated him?" I want to say, I feel nothing.

My mother knocks on the door, and comes in as my brother escapes out into the hall. Her voice is choked. "I'm so glad he became a Christian last year," I hear her saying. "Remember how I told you he was completely changed?" I nod distractedly, putting my arm around her. She continues on and on, telling me about his warm-heartedness, about the university position in Taipei that he had just accepted. She is puzzled by my stony silence. "Well, Mom, he was really mean to me…" I begin lamely. My voice trails off, and I can sense her outrage before she even opens her mouth. And so I stop listening, and contemplate the sky outside my window. A tiny, blinking light drifts up above the trees, above the dark horizon. An airplane, I think. I wonder where it's headed. I sit, contemplating my own guilt, weighing the idea of forgiveness. Maybe if I pray, he'll be found. Maybe if I forgive him, he'll be alive somewhere, safe.


But do you remember what he did? Do you remember how you let him, didn't stop him, didn't shriek or tell your mother, your aunts? You're disgusting. Sick. Sick.


I remember how I smiled at him through clenched teeth seven years later, when we returned for my grandmother's funeral. I stood stiffly by the temple entrance, a book in hand, startled by how I towered over my aunts, overwhelmed by a sea of relatives, all dressed in white. I was circling awkwardly around the temple grounds, when a man suddenly approached me. "Jian-Ling, you've grown up," he smiled. "Don't you recognize me?"

"No, I'm sorry, I don't," I apologized. He was tall, fairly good-looking, with dark glasses. He looked vaguely familiar, and I felt something in my mind begin to stir in recognition--

"How can you not remember A-An?" my mom scolds me, appearing from behind. She embraces him, and I push down whatever emotion is surging through me, threatening to spill over. I want to scream. I escape back outside to wait until the ceremony begins. The air out here is fresher but just as humid, and I sit in the cool shade of a huge, gnarled old tree, watching everyone assembling inside. Through the doorway, I can see my male cousins tying white headbands across their foreheads, 4th uncle rearranging the tiered offering tables heaped with flowers, dishes of food, incense, and paper money. The rituals are beautiful, and I wish I understood their meaning. I brush off the end of a long stick and trace out elaborate patterns in the dirt, ignoring the ants that scurry periodically over my feet, across the carved stone benches. I pull the end of my makeshift brush over the same arcs and whorls, again and again, digging ever-deeper grooves into the path.

The sound of 3rd aunt's sharp voice snaps me out of my reverie, and I look up to see her beckoning to me impatiently. She scares me— A-An and A-Jie's mother, this incredibly loud, sharp-tongued woman. As I follow her inside, she scolds me brusquely for not helping, for ignoring everyone so rudely. I remain silent, as usual, taking in the details of the beautiful, dusty hall instead: the lonely shrines we pass along the way; the curling smoke of incense rising from tiny, gilded trays; offerings of fruit, rice, and even beer. 3rd aunt takes her place next to my mother, and I am astounded by how strongly they resemble each other. They face the coffin with the same eyes, the same wide cheekbones, their mouths slightly open in identical expressions of grief. I look into the coffin as well, looking down at my grandmother's unfamiliar face, trying to feel something, anything, for this woman that I don't know.


I remember that the body was recovered the next day. I tried not to imagine his face pale and bloated, his eyes blank and staring. Mom spent hours on the phone with 3rd aunt and A-Jie, helping them make arrangements for their flight to Sydney, and for the funeral. I try to shed my old hatred. I pay him tribute in my own way, learning to paint in the traditional style, marveling again at the elegance of his works. I tell myself that I am letting let him go. I let him rest in the beauty of the rocks, the waterfalls, the mist I recreate.


I thought about the only nice thing he ever said to me. When I was eight, I made a pencil copy of one of his scroll-paintings, a simple image of two rabbits under ferns. "That's pretty good," he said, surprised. Now, three years after his death, 3rd aunt is still burning paper money for him, still spending a fortune on exhibiting his work in galleries, in schools, even in 3rd uncle's police station. I imagine her bent under the weight of her grief, her French braid streaked with gray— a proud, terrifying woman reduced to a state of perpetual mourning, desperate to ensure that her son's memory will not be forgotten.


And now this, this brings it all back. I feel drained, and my head is beginning to ache. The room is too dark, too airless, and all I want, really, is the peace of a long, solitary run, and the cold, exhilarating wind on my face. The seconds tick by, until I decide that I've been sitting here long enough. Time to go, time to let go.

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