what we hold tight

lights

The Toronto Christmas Market
Nokyoung Xayasane

The lights are connected to each other like bridges between point A and point B. They hang above the Toronto Christmas Market. I see them in the distance. Yellow lights alive in the night.

I make my way to the main entrance but then decide to wait in the line. The line moves quickly. There are people wearing red Rudolph noses. People stand in groups waiting for their friends to arrive.

There’s music playing. You try to walk about and all around you are toques and scarves and the steam of apple cider and the sweetness of hot chocolate. At the centre of the market, an evergreen occupies the space like a bejewelled grandfather, wise and beautiful and silent. There are flashes of light and smiling faces as they stand for photos, trying to capture a feeling, a moment, when the air was cold but the heart was warm.

We decide after a few hours and some moments standing under heat lamps and inside shops, that we’ve all had enough Christmas cheer. We need a warm place to sit down. We need a drink and something hearty in our bellies.

The problem and the beauty of Toronto is choice. Where to go? We decide to find a place near the St. Lawrence Market and hail a cab. The traffic moves at a snail’s pace. We walk around and check out a few places. My toes have begun to thaw. The air around is still biting cold.

Eventually we happen upon a Spanish restaurant. I haven’t been to a Spanish restaurant before and neither have they. It looks fancy. But I’ve found that in Toronto, as in life, it doesn’t really matter what you’re wearing, it matters only how you present yourself.

There’s a long wooden bar. The lights are dim. A group of four is about to leave and we decide to have a drink at the bar while we wait. A moment later the table opens up and I slide into the booth. I look at the menu. It reads Barsa Taberna on the cover. The four of us decide to share the paella, a classic Spanish dish.

Our voices are raised and cheerful. I look to my left at a couple whose date has been highjacked by another couple. Perhaps the second couple have tired of speaking to each other, and they find relief in two new pairs of listening ears.

I look to the bar in front of me. There are two women who look like they’re having a night out, away from the kids and away from their partners. Everyone is beautifully dressed. A man sits at the bar, drinking a beer.

I look to the faces across from me. The four of us laugh. We share stories. We share a meal. How did you two meet, I ask them. They smile and tell me their story. Outside the snow begins to fall, specks of white, lit up in lamp light. The buildings reach up into the sky, into a darkness that hugs the city like a long-lost friend.

I raise my hand to brush the hair from my face. The napkin almost falls from my lap but I catch it just in time to hear a knife clatter to the ground. We all laugh. I hold that laughter in my mind as it already begins to slip away, as it is already the past.

Years later I’ll remember that night. Even then I knew, that laughter and that happiness, they are what connect us, they are what we hold tight when we have nothing to hold on to at the end of our lives.

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with those we can no longer love

Falling by Nokyoung Xayasane

The golden leaves fell softly, gently oscillating in their descent. She sat there silently, looking out into the field from the tiny chapel window. Her breath quickened, and she wished that for one split second — everything would just stop. If only the present time could be hushed and imbued with reassuring stillness, but life wasn’t like that; it moves as if propelled towards something greater.

Sophia sat immobile. Her long white wedding dress enveloped her slight frame as she watched the leaves falling slowly to the ground; their golden descent matching her tears. Her arm moved upwards, struggling out of a dense mud, caked with lethargy. She wiped her tears away.

And then it happened — as it always did: She saw him, youthful and optimistic, under that tree, smiling at her quizzically, and she could almost touch him, as one who is able to touch the past. But he wasn’t there. He was somewhere that she could never reach. Even years later when she saw him at the theatre, he remained someone untouchable, unalterable. His hair had become sparser at the sides, but she could have recognized that energy anywhere; it calmed her and energized her simultaneously.

“Sophia, my God, it’s been so long. How are you?” He had asked her that numerous times in the past and it had always thrown her off guard, as if she were realizing for the first time that she existed and felt things as person.

“I’m well. How have you been, Owen?” The distance between them minimized. They stood there alone, except for the flakes that began to descend. Their intimacy — short in distance, but heavy with things left unsaid. She smiled; the light never reaching her eyes. He smiled back at her genuinely, but always curiously. In that one shared look she felt the impossibility of them sharing any space together for more than a few minutes, and the conversation meandered, never settling in one place, never standing still, and eventually they moved away from each other as their words lost any semblance of meaning. The distance between them expanded, and the crowd of people materialized around them.

“Well, it was nice to see you again.” As he said this he moved his hand to touch her shoulder, reminding her of the ever-present awkwardness between them. Two people who were too joined in mental space to exist properly in physical space.

“Yes, it was nice. I hope you continue… to be well.”

“You too.”

“Well, see you when I see you.”

“Who knows, maybe it’ll be less than five years before we run into each other again,” he joked, his eyes smiling.

“Yeah,” Sophia laughed softly. She wanted to reach out and touch him gently. She wanted to strangle him.

“Well, only time will tell,” he trailed off, lost somewhere. “Okay, bye then,” abruptly spoken.

“Bye.”

They moved away from each other into their own realities, but those moments stood still for her. She looked at herself in the mirror. Her face flushed, pulsating. She stood up and the train of white material rustled after her. The cool flow of air entered the room as she quickly opened the chapel window. Autumn air rushed in and the sound of the leaves rustled in tune with her dress as she fanned herself with her now feverish hands.

“This is not how I imagined it would happen.” Her youthful voice came to her from somewhere far off.

“What did you think was going to happen?” They were at the tree again. A light mist of rain fell, barely perceptible under the canopy. Sophia sat next to him with her legs folded into her body; her arms encircling herself, clutching at an unattainable comfort. He stretched his legs outward, looking at her with unbearable rationality. “That we could just get up and go?”

“If you asked me to go, I’d go.” Her intensity surprised even herself. She didn’t really want to go anywhere with him; she just wanted to sit still with him, to be with him, but this plan made things seem less real: running away together to somewhere far off instead of being here, in this space.

“Sophia, you’d hate me. The farther I took you away from Jacob, from your family, the more you’d regret it. By the time we reached the 401 you’d wished you had never decided to go.” Owen looked at her and she felt as if she were falling from a precipice, from somewhere she had been standing without realizing it. “You don’t even know me. We don’t even know each other,” he reasoned.

“But I want to know you.” Her naivety rang sharply in her ears. If only he would see it her way. If only he could.

“I’m someone that you’ve created in your mind. I’m not this person that you think I am,” he countered.

A deep sigh escaped from her lips. “I wish you existed.”

“I wish you existed.”

“Who?” asked her mother.

“Mom, what are you doing in here?”

“Well, honey, we’re waiting for you. Everyone’s waiting for you. Jacob’s waiting for you.”

“Okay Mom, I just need one more minute.”

“Is everything okay, Sophia?”

“Yeah, of course. I just need more time.” Only time will tell, Owen had said.

“Okay, sweetheart. I’ll be waiting for you outside.” Her mother softly closed the door behind her and Sophia was back at the tree.

“What if we came back to this spot in five years?” She looked at Owen helplessly.

“No, Sophia, I can’t do that. I won’t do that. If you leave Jacob it has to be because of what he’s done or what he isn’t. It can’t be for me. It has to be for you.”

“Sophia, it’s all been for you,” argued Jacob as they faced each other in the kitchen, a year before their wedding day.

“What has?”

“What do you mean? Everything has been for you: the ring, the house, everything!”

She wished she could feel something more. A part of her yearned to stay with him, but she was already gone. Her mind wandered past sandy terrains, past the cloak that had shielded her for all these years. I know you want to keep me here, but I cannot stay.

“Why do you want to be with me?”

“Because I’m only happy when you’re around. I need you.”

She could feel the cloak begin to tighten. A warm pain festered within her chest and she struggled to breathe. He held her then and the pain subsided, placated by his touch. His mouth moved above her, inside her, around her, and she fell into him. The ceramic tiles were cold against her back. He moved above her, looking down at her. He loves me, she thought, and her tears fell.

The autumn wind blew in through the chapel window. The leaves called out to her, called out for her to run. She clamoured up the windowsill and fell the short distance to the ground. The leaves crunched beneath her feet. Her heels pounded against the grass. More leaves fell around her — falling past her.  She ran, ran, ran. Never stopping.

A soft knock sounded at the door. “Are you ready? The music is about to start.” Sophia looked away from the window.

“Yes Mom, I’m coming.” For one moment, she stood still. She could feel the hard jut of the baseboard, the stickiness of skin on tile, the gasping breaths between two warm bodies.

She could feel the snow falling, melting on her face, the way snow surprises you with its first touch. And the rain. The drops of rain that made their way through the overhanging canopy; the drops that had fallen lightly between two youthful figures.

I wish you existed. Words reverberating from a past that moved forward without heed. I wish you didn’t need me so much.

Once the leaves outside were green, but they had changed to a golden hue, something altogether different, she thought. They perched on the tips of branches but eventually they must fall, softly floating down in their fragility to meet with the hard ground. She moved away from the window and the falling leaves.

The door opened and artificial light entered the room. She turned to face the light. Her mother’s face fell.

what we all long for

It’s been six months since I’ve updated my blog. I think I had to deal with my big revelation (from my last post) with a little bit of silence. I find that once you’ve said something big, it’s best to stay quiet for a little while after, to keep things in balance, and to get your grounding back.

Right now, I’m reading a book by Dionne Brand called What We All Long For. I adore this woman’s work. In my last year at university, I wrote an essay about her book of poetry Thirsty, which is a moving and rich work. Now I’ve moved on to her novels. What We All Long For really resonates with me. I’ve only read the first few chapters, but I can empathize with the main character perfectly: Tuyen is an *immigrant from Vietnam who produces avant-garde installations. The story hinges on her family’s struggle to find her missing brother, who was lost when the family fled from Vietnam to Thailand.

I understand her struggle. Although, I don’t remember much about the **Thai refugee camp that my family stayed in, I do remember mosquito netting, for some strange reason. I was born in that camp as a displaced person. It’s been 23 years since those first five years living in the camp. My mom has a lot of quirky stories from that time, but there are many stories that I sometimes wish I didn’t know. She told me some things about her life before meeting my dad, and what she told me inspired me to write this short story. I wrote it in my university creative writing class in 2010 (I think), and I haven’t revised it since. I wrote it to try to understand what she had gone through. I hope you enjoy it.

* Update (01/28/2013): Upon further reading, I discovered that Tuyen isn’t an immigrant. She was born in Toronto. Her parents and her two older sisters are immigrants from Vietnam (along with her lost brother). She’s the youngest of five siblings with another older brother who was also born in Toronto.

** Note (01/28/2013): My background is Lao.

Cut

Alice felt an overwhelming desire to reach over to her mother, grab her by the roots of her hair, fist the black locks at the base of her skull, and repeatedly slam her face into the dashboard. Her fingers itched as she rubbed them against her jeans. She moved the car out of the driveway and turned onto the deserted road. They sat together as the heat radiated and circulated within the confines of the car. The sun had not yet risen, and the darkness moved fluidly in front of the headlights.

She wondered how her mother felt: waking up in total darkness, trudging to her minimum wage job, exerting herself in repetitive, graceless tasks, and returning in that same darkness to their dilapidated house. Sure, she had a short lunch break between her endless hours of sewing, but how did it feel to move in perpetual darkness?

“All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t cut your hair,” her mother retorted, rummaging through her oversized purse. She removed a tube of lip-gloss from her scattered things and serenely applied it—her eyes intent on the mirror. “Why do you need to cut it? It’s beautiful just the way it is.” She rubbed the gloss onto her thinning lips as she spoke.

“I need a change, Mom. And anyways, I’m donating it to charity.” Alice’s right hand moved restlessly on her jeans.

“When are you doing it?”

“Today, I think.”

Her mother sighed heavily. In her periphery, Alice saw her mother looking at herself in the mirror, running her fingers through her hair, now streaked with gray strands. She remembered that same disappointed sigh from years ago.

Here, talk to your brother. She felt the receiver in her tiny hands as a voice spoke to her through the static of the phone. Frightened by the disembodied voice she had begun to cry softly. Alice realized that it wasn’t the voice that had scared her, but the strange feeling of disconnect to someone who was joined to her by blood—her mother’s other child. She sighed and took the receiver from Alice.

When Alice was in her mid-teens she had been told the whole story of her mother’s son. It seemed like a tale from another life; a story with no basis in actuality, but in reality, it was her mother’s story. She had left that little boy in the care of her ex-husband and had flown thousands of miles to Canada. Alice saw him standing among the rubble of his youth—abandoned. She wished that she could comfort him, but he was a young man now, much older than her. The feeling of estrangement wrapped itself around her and she was protected, but as his voice gave shape to his unknown form, a bond was generated between them. He could not touch his mother much like she could not reach this woman sitting beside her.

Her mother looked over at her. “Well, you don’t have to pick me up after work then.”

“What do you mean? How’re you gonna get home?”

“Oh, don’t worry about me. I’ll find a ride,” she said as she shifted her glance to the road ahead.

“I don’t get it.”

“I just don’t want to see you, is all. I don’t want to see the mess that you’ve made… out of your hair.”

Cut. Her mother’s words like a moving blade. Alice’s hands clenched and unclenched rhythmically as they strained against her self-control. They itched to feel the satisfying percussion of bone on dashboard. Breathing in deeply, she glanced at herself in the rearview mirror.

An unmoving face stared back at her. Never show people how you feel. Never show them that they’ve hurt you, her mother had advised her when a fellow student had spit in her face. She felt the weakness of emotion take over, and consciously hardened herself. She was impenetrable. No one could touch her. No one could cut her.

“Fine,” she said and looked away from the mirror.

To distract herself she wondered who had the better deal: herself or her mother’s son. In his mind this woman could be anything. Maybe he fashioned his own story about why she had to leave him. In his mind, he must have seen her as a driven woman who aspired to greater things, to a greater self. She left him because she needed to escape poverty, he told himself. Then she’ll come back and find me, and once and for all, I’ll know that she really does love me.

They finally reached the factory, and her mother exited silently. The morning light grew faintly in the distance.

~

Jane opened the door of the factory and blinked repeatedly. The light—harsh and glaring. Her daughter’s words like a moving blade. Why did Alice continually challenge her? Why was her daughter so much like her? They were both two silent, brewing storms unable to release their deluge. She seated herself at the station where they sewed button holes. It was tedious and time-consuming, but she had perfected the task and did it skillfully and without thought. The press of the machines droned on. Her hands moved ceaselessly, productively impotent. At these moments she felt her mind moving forwards and backwards, oscillating between past and present. Years ago, before Alice, Alex used to cling to her hand as they made their way through the busy market. Bicycles clinked past, carts sped by, and the harsh sun floated above a pulsating haze.

Mom, I’m hungry.

I know, Alex. We’re almost there. We’re going to see Papa.

Where has he been, Momma?

Oh you know your Papa. He has to work a lot. He has to make money to feed us.

Oh okay.

That day was a scar on her mind. Cut. She began to bleed again.

She saw his little form. She always made sure that his hair was combed. He was wearing a clean, blue shirt that day. It had been washed the day before along with all of his clothes. She placed the duffel bag beside him. He sat on the front steps while she kneeled in front of him. They were at her husband’s house. He hadn’t been living with them for over three months.

All right, Alex. You stay here okay? Your Papa will be home in ten minutes. Here’s a watch so you can tell. When that hand gets to the two he’ll be home, but here’s his work number if he isn’t home by then. There’s the phone right there. She pointed to the nearby phone booth and placed a coin in his small palm.

I’m scared.

Don’t worry. Here, let me show you. You put the coin in here, and you press these numbers. He had laughed. It was a fun game for him.

Where are you going?

I have to go and buy some food. Make sure to call Papa if he’s not back when the watch says.

Ok, Momma. I’ll wait here for you.

Cut.

“Shit,” Jane felt the blood on her fingertips. The needle left a small bloody pinprick.

He’s waiting for me, she thought. Alice is waiting for me.

~

Alice held the long lock of hair and in the mirror—a different person. She relished the lightness and the freedom of this new look. The heavy curtain of blackness was pulled back, showcasing herself—explicit and raw. Stray strands littered the floor. Blunt and chopped black ends. There was nowhere to hide now. Her cell phone rang.

“Can you pick me up?”

Alice paused. “Okay.”

She pulled into the parking lot. In the light of the half-open factory doorway, she saw her mother standing there. Her outline silhouetted against the dimly lit backdrop of the factory interior. She stood there with her oversized purse and lunch bag—a figure in the darkness. In the muted light, her mother looked down at her hands, hands that had moved skillfully and ceaselessly beneath the press of a sewing machine. In her creased and worn grasp, she had held a young boy and a young girl. Now these hands grappled with thread and needle and nothing else. Her mother quietly seated herself in the passenger seat. The car door creaked on its hinges and closed softly. They drove in silence. The darkness outside matched its morning brother, and cupped mother and daughter in its softness.

“I thought you didn’t want to see me,” Alice began.

“I know what I said.”

“What changed your mind?”

“I don’t know, Alice. I’m sorry. Your hair cut looks good.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Yes.”

“Thanks.”

The car moved forward into the darkness. Asphalt lit by the moving headlights. The heat emanated from the radiator.