what we hold tight


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.

Home for Christmas


Home for Christmas
Nokyoung Xayasane

I’m home for Christmas,
back in the city where I once
wore track pants with socks
that were fashionably
pulled up at the pant hem.
I’m back in the place
where one summer I bought
a whole tub of
buttered almond ice-cream
and read Sweet Valley High books
until I got a headache—
from the reading
or maybe just from the sugar rush.

There was a shopping plaza
where a boy on a bicycle
spit in my face
and my mom told me to
toughen up.
There was the local mall
where I rode an electric horse
for one loonie.
It moved at a snail’s pace,
but for me,
it flew.
We drive past
my friend’s house
where we had band practice—
an all-girl band.
I sang
while Courtney played
the drums
and Nikki played the guitar.
There is my old elementary school,
a field of grass
where I once believed that
the world ended and began.

I wake up the first morning
back home
with my mom’s black figure
standing in the darkness,
the light from the garish red drapes
illuminating her silhouette.
I am half asleep
and not at all surprised.
You have to try and
sleep without the fan running
she tells me.
This is a thing for her—
my need for white noise.
I may pass this neurosis
down to my children,
I may never find someone
who’ll sleep beside me
in my marriage bed,
who’ll be able to stand
the incessant whirl of a
long-stemmed fan.
Stop this, Mom,
I say.
I turn the fan back on
and fall back asleep in
my childhood bed.

My parents’ house is
full of Jesus,
Jesus on the walls
with blue and pink lights
emanating from his heart area,
the Last Supper strategically
placed by the dining room table.
I don’t know if I believe in God
or gods in general.
This shakes my mom to the core.
How much of what we
believe is a form of rebellion?
My sister trims my hair
and my mom is pleased
with the length.
It’s nice to keep it long.
I bury the desire
to chop it all off,
How much of what we do
is a form of rebellion?

Also gold, the place is full of gold,
full of my medals and my
graduation certificate
and my brother’s
and my sister’s as well.
The walls are full of our photos
of when we were young
and I was fresh off the boat
or still in the boat
or about to go on the boat—
an aggrieved and unimpressed
expression on my face.
I want to know if
our cat
is coming with us,
or not.
My mom says the cat
will meet us in Canada.

My mom is worried that we’re hungry.
I’ve just stopped eating, Mom,
I’m okay
but what’s another bowl of pho
or congee?
Congee is our chicken noodle soup.
It’s what I make when
I feel down or sick.
My dad wants me to fix
something on his phone.
“It’s God’s plan” is voiced
at least five times in conversation.
I fix the clock on the oven
and on the microwave,
I teach my parents
how to use Netflix,
and I decipher the contents
of endless bottles.
My dad writes the translations
down in black marker.

On the first night back,
we gather in the living room,
a place with more chairs
than people.
Our Christmas tree is decorated
with ribbons and cards and ornaments,
there are outdoor lights
at the hem of the tree—no matter,
no one will notice.
We watch Home Alone 2:
Lost in New York
Kevin is left behind on Christmas.
How lucky, I think.
And how lonely.
I suddenly wake up
with the smell of apple pie
in the air.
I’ve fallen asleep on the couch
and my parents sit near me,
my brother and his girlfriend
close by.
My dad has also fallen asleep.
Someone hands me a piece of pie
and I fall back asleep.
The TV has been turned off,
and everyone
is sitting or lying down
in the same room,
our breathing measured,
slow and even.
The snow falls outside
in the blustery winter night,
it falls outside this place
where my world once
ended and began.