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Making A Home

The green and gold urn sat in an open cardboard box, the overhanging naked branches gliding off of its shiny surface as they made their way through Manhattan. Ken drove faster, not wanting to miss the next green light. The interior rattled a little as they moved through SoHo and the sky grayed as rain began to fall. The number of street lamps became sparse as they inched beside Chelsea Pier caught in a throng of yellow and green Taxis. The nausea and fatigue began to set inside Harriet’s stomach and head. The funeral had been two days ago, though Harriet easily lost track of hours. When they returned home after the funeral Harriet went to make coffee, but instead she sat at the kitchen island with her index and forefinger poised inside the cup and looking out the window. When Ken had told her that her mother had been moved to a hospice, it had been two weeks of discovering herself frozen and finding the minutes had disappeared. The day began early for them, as they needed to pick up her mother’s ashes from the funeral home at 8 am, and would meet with the real estate agent and talk about the possibility of selling the home at 10:45.

The house her mother still owned but had not lived in since Harriet was a child was slightly uphill, on the border of Bronx and Manhattan and cradled by trees. The Victorian home had become somewhat abandoned when Linda could no longer muster the energy to restore it for sale. The money made from the sale would have gone to pay medical bills but even as Linda, Ken and her daughter touched up paint on the crown molding and replaced fogged glass panes in the downstairs bedroom they all knew a nearly million dollar home far from the train station and the finest kindergartens would be difficult to sell.

The air in the house was stale. Dust modes floated down the green-tinted shafts of light from the stained-glass-covered dark wood door. Ken opened the front-facing bay windows, letting in the chilly September air. Harriet placed the urn on the coffee table and pushed her hands into her coat pockets.

“Do you want anything to eat?” Ken said as he strode over to her, placing his hand on the small of her back.

Harriet didn’t respond, perhaps because she wasn’t paying attention and instead she walked over to the tarp-covered armchair and pulled it off in a few jerky tugs.

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Catalina

Everyone knows that the nicest people you’ll ever meet are drunk girls in bathrooms, but Evelyn was sure that not everyone met someone like Catalina.

The bathroom at Rick’s frat house was unfinished and disgusting. The walls and floors were concrete, the stall doors hung loosely on their hinges, beer cans littered the floor and it reeked of booze and vomit. The worst part, however, was that the whole room was spinning. Evelyn tittered farther into the room, still clutching her red solo cup. The door banged shut behind her and the noise caused her to jump, sending the plastic cup to the floor, its contents spilling out and joining the puddle of questionable liquid she was too drunk to try to avoid. Her girlfriends had disappeared earlier in the night so she had been left to break the seal all by herself, while Rick, her guy friend…. Boyfriend?…Fuck buddy, if she were being honest, waited outside.

“What about the troll?” she muttered to herself, cursing her friends in her head as she brushed past another girl exiting one of the stalls. “Hermione got attacked by a motherfucking troll when she went to the bathroom by herself.”

She resisted the urge to vomit once she saw the stall, decided she needed to relieve herself more than she needed to avoid a possible toilet STI, struggled with latch on the door, yanked her skirt up above her hips, and plopped herself down on her toilet, knowing she was too unstable to squat above it. Her relief only lasted for a moment as she reached out to grab the toilet paper and hit the empty, metal rod instead.

“Damnit,” she muttered. “At least Hermione probably had some fucking toilet paper.”

“Toilet paper?” she heard a high pitched, girly voice echo through the concrete room. “Do you need toilet paper?”

“Yes, please!” Evelyn said, thankful for the semblance of dignity that toilet paper would offer her as she clutched her dress around her waist and her shoes became soaked through from the puddle on the floor.

A hand appeared under the door, fingers wrapped around a roll of toilet paper. Evelyn leaned forward and managed to grab it without toppling over, though the world was still spinning and she almost face planted on the concrete. She sat up victoriously, toilet paper in hand. It was single-ply, which Evelyn normally pretend to despise because of her mother’s high standards for literally everything, but now she was just grateful.  

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Gomennasai

Honto ni gomen ne! Honto ni gomen ne!

It’s shock that allows Hannah to ignore the blood dripping down her cheek and focus on the terrified face of the guy who just sent her flying down a flight of steps.  People pass by, too worried about catching the next train to acknowledge the two of them awkwardly positioned at the bottom of the stairwell of the Nezu station.

Honto ni gomen ne!” he repeats, his hands hovering over her shoulders.

She’s had enough Japanese to understand he’s frantically apologizing, but anything else he says after that is pure gibberish.  Hannah reaches up, little stones kicked loose from the sidewalk peppering her palm, and touches the scrape above her eye, a token of face-planting on concrete.

“Ow,” she mutters, pulling back to stare at the red that drips down her finger.  He responds with more unintelligible Japanese.  She wonders if she should tell him that she doesn’t understand anything he’s saying, but he’s already scrambling across the pavement and dodging pedestrians as he tries to collect the books that went flying from her bag as she fell.  Hannah takes the opportunity to grab onto the stairwell railing and begins hauling herself to her feet, but he’s already back, books in hand, an arm reaching around her shoulder to help her up.

“Thanks…uh, I mean doumo?”  she says.

He shakes his head, “No.”

“No?” she responds.  Did she pronounce it wrong?  She suddenly wishes she had taken more Japanese back at Cal State.  The two semesters allowing her to study abroad in Japan were clearly not enough.  She’s sure, though, that her mediocre Japanese hasn’t failed her now even if the look on this stranger’s face tells her otherwise.

“No,” he points at her face then at himself, “My fault.”

“It’s fine, really!” she smiles, “Accidents happen!”

Hannah takes the corner of her jacket sleeve and presses it against her forehead.  It stings, but it’s far from the worst injury she’s had.  The stranger still seems distressed.  True, he did knock her over, but it wasn’t really his fault.  She was standing in the middle of the stairwell checking her phone when he barreled into her and sent her rolling down the stairs.  That reminds her, her phone went flying with the rest of her things, and she starts to panic as she realizes her only way of communication has probably been crushed under the feet of hundreds of smartly dressed businessmen.

“Oh shit, my phone!  Did you see my phone?”  she asks.

“Oh!  Phone!”  he says, reaching into his pocket and producing a cracked iPhone.  She grabs it and presses the home button.  The screen lights up and her German Shepard, Lady, grins up at her happily.  It’s damaged but still works.  A small blessing.

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We’re Just Fine

He had a habit of giving her bad news in public. In line at a Smoothie King he ha told her about the first few white spots on the scans. He’d dropped by the Starbucks nearest to her college with the results of the biopsy. It was a caramel macchiato with a bleak prognosis on the side. And in late November of her junior year, she was missing class to wait for him. He had been up most of the night and had scheduled an appointment that he hadn’t needed in months. The technician and doctor invited her in to the examining room, as they had done before, but this time she followed. She took his hand as they waited for his results. The doctor removed his glasses and rubbed his bloodshot eyes. His CT scan lit up like the twinkly Christmas lights he had hung on the house for so many years. Little white splotches strung across the image, like icicles.

“So how long do I have this time?”

“Three months at the most Ben, I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you Dr. Valentine, for everything you’ve done,” he said as he placed an arm around Annie’s shoulder.

They made their way down the whitewashed halls into the waiting room. Annie left her head against his shoulder, covering her eyes from the people who remained in the stiff armchairs. She sat in the driver’s seat but couldn’t put the key in the ignition. Annie had known after the first diagnosis that he probably didn’t have very long, but this time it seemed surprising and surreal. She’d read about it so many times, the father or the boyfriend or the best friend dies expectedly or suddenly and the rest are left to grieve. She also knew that in those same stories, those people kept going. They picked themselves up and they moved on.

“How do you feel about a milkshake?”

“Yeah, that sounds good,” she said as she looped her arm through his.

For a while, they had hoped it would get better. But she had never been able to predict what would happen next. It was a lot of waiting and a lot of pain. Annie pulled into the Steak n’ Shake and held the door open for her gently aged father. It was strange, how much older he’d gotten just in the last two years, how frail he now seemed.

He would’ve been sixty next July, she thought. She found a booth with sparkly red patent leather seats, and reached for a couple of menus.

“Annie, you’re going to be just fine.”

“I can’t believe it’s only been two years. It wasn’t enough time, they didn’t give you enough time,” she said as she watched her father spoon the chocolate malt shake.

Almost two years ago in January, Annie had come home from Starbucks, drinking the leftover foam from her chai tea latte with the smell of coffee lingering on her clothes. She could see the orange and red crackling in the fireplace as she opened the door, her dad moving back and forth from pot to pan in the kitchen.

“Well hello! I didn’t expect you back so soon,” he said, lifting the noodle out of the boiling water.

“Yeah, I only needed to be there for a few hours. I got some stuff done. Here let me see that.”

She threw it through the air and the two of them watched as the wiggly noodle stuck to the cupboard. It really only meant the pasta was done cooking, but they’d done that together since she was little.

“Looks good to me.”

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Why We Stay

There is very little good to be said for a city like this. It would be nothing without its people. There is no industry. The weather is less than ideal with long, harsh winters and short, sweltering summers. The midges come in off the lake during July and stick to every surface that doesn’t move. If you’re lucky, it won’t be snowing on Halloween. Downtown is dirty and dangerous as soon as it gets dark. There seem to be more homeless people than professionals. The latter set walk in grey suits with their heads down against the wind. There are only a few tall buildings in the city and these individuals are lucky to have a job in one of them. Maybe the Key building. Maybe Terminal Tower.

There is little good to be said for a city like this, but still people stay. Often times they don’t have a choice. They are stuck here because of their jobs and their financial situations. Often they stay for family. I’m in between the two groups of people. I never made it through my first semester of community college. I got pregnant a week after my first French exam. I don’t have the education I need to have options, and my daughter needs to be with her family. My mother takes care of her while I work at the Rennasaince Hotel downtown. I spend twelve hours a day changing sheets and scrubbing bathtubs. I daydream about a better life elsewhere, but I would never leave. I often worry that the people I am close to will, and who could blame them. For me, the idea of a better life is just that – a daydream.

I eat my sandwich at the RTA stop. It’s November, and the concrete platform I wait on has already been salted. I can feel the cold bench though my wool skirt. My frizzy hair is being blown loose out of the tight bun. I pat down the little hairs around my face. A balding, heavyset man sits down next to me. The bus pulls to a stop in front of us, and he heaves himself up as I gather my bag and wrap my snack back up.

Luckily this is one of the newer buses and has yet to be tainted with years of wear-and-tear. I sit on a plastic seat and reopen my peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

My phone buzzes in my purse. A text message from my fiancé, Killian, appears on the screen, “Should get out of work on time to come with my parents. I have something big to tell you!”

Smiling, I reply, “Can’t wait!”

He’s been telling me for the last couple months that he is being considered for a promotion at work – project manager. Killian has worked for the same construction firm since our junior year of high school, and I feel it’s about time he starts moving up. Plus, the raise would give us financial stability that we haven’t experienced since Fiona was born.

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Bad Desire

When the weather in Maine sucks, it sucks hard. Fat raindrops thud against my hood, I tug the drawstrings of my fleece hoodie, pulling them tighter while trying to ignore the dampness seeping through to my hair. I stuff my frozen fingers under my shirt and push them against my belly. It’s still two weeks too early for snow, which I would honestly prefer, so bad weather meant a downpour of bone-chilling rain. Thunder rumbles overhead and my rain-soaked jean-clad knees quake. The town bus is late.

I tuck myself in a ball and duck my face to try to keep it dry. I have long since lost all the feeling in my nose and toes. I wish I had checked the weather this morning; it had looked so sunny, I hadn’t thought to bring my umbrella or windbreaker. The honking of a horn causes me to look up. A gold Impala with a dented bumper covered in half-faded daycare stickers pulls up in front of me. It splashes muddy ice water over my feet, soaking through my tennis shoes. My heart skips a beat, Mr. Summerfield’s car. Mr. Summerfield leans his head out the window, “Hey there Mercy! Do you want a ride home?”

I stand but hesitate before answering. Do I need a ride? Do I want a ride? Is this a good idea? Do I want it to be? Thunder rolls again and water trickles through my hair. Raindrops drip down my cheeks. I shiver, his car looks warm and dry.

Not meeting his stare I say through my chattering teeth, “If you don’t mind.”
He grins and pops open the passenger side door. I get in, wincing at the pungent stench of cigarettes and set my bag on my lap. I don’t look at him, instead, I stare down at my aqua blue shoulder bag and run my thumb over the V for Vendetta button pinned to it.

“Poor girl, have you been sitting there since school end? You must be half frozen to death by now!” Mr. Summerfield says as he twists the heating gauge to high and switches on the heated seats. I nod in thanks and turn my gaze to look out the window. My shoulders are still shaking, but is it still because of the cold? My reflection stares back at me from the window, my rain- plastered short auburn hair and dark brown eyes distorted from the water droplets. I look away from my reflection and back down at my folded hands.

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Lesson in Separation

She was observed by many to be a victim of serial tragedies that claimed the lives of many of her family. Her home, modeled after Beijing’s courtyard house, was a literal interpretation of isolation, a jail that she might have felt comfort in. They all thought that the girl already made up her mind to be closed off from the rest of the world. Perhaps, it was to mourn the tragedies that occurred in her past, or as a self-retribution on being born an unfortunate child. Nobody thought it was her fault, but everyone thought she did herself a strong disservice. In the end, people let go of their attempts to ‘fix’ her, so they simply left her to her own devices.

The girl’s tragedy began when her two elder siblings drowned in the nearby river. She was four or five at that time and her siblings were not much older than her. The villagers remembered that it was during the summer, where none of the village kids had anything better to do than taking a dip in the cool waters. No one knew what happened exactly, except that two boys were dead; their lifeless and naked bodies were taken out by fishing nets from the mayor’s own boat. The mayor, a seasoned swimmer, was proud of his village because it never had any accident-related deaths. So, on that day, he was especially shocked and horrified when he pulled up the bodies. He then quickly made his way over to the boys’ home and told their family the news.

Naturally, the parents took the news harder than everyone else. There were a few people in that home, the mayor knew, but he did not know just who and the exact number. He remembered seeing maybe an elderly or two in there, and a young girl. When he delivered the fatal news, he spotted the girl playing by the well, with a pink and white polka-dotted shirt on and matching shorts. She was oblivious to her parents’ cries and was seemingly lost in her own world. Good, the mayor thought; she was too young to know of this tragedy.

That day, people burned joss papers for the dead kids. The kids’ clothes were also burned so that they wouldn’t get cold in-between their transition to the afterlife. An elderly lady, a neighbor of the family, spent her days making paper money for the kids to take with them.
Some months after the boys’ deaths, the parents moved to Nanking to began a new chapter in their life. The villagers supposed that they wanted to make some money to send to the grandparents and the youngest child. By that time, most of the villagers ceased their visits, because they had other things to worry about. Their eyes were still sharp enough, however, to pick out the activities, or lack of, from that sad place.

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Gold Boy, Emerald Girl

I am not sure what to make of this story. It feels awkward and somewhat uncomfortable, especially in the dialogue. A lot of the conversation doesn’t even occur in quotations, but in the context of the confusing and muddled paragraphs. I tied this largely to the cultural separation but I realize that Yiyun Li creates this confusion on purpose. The characters themselves, Hanfeng, Siyu, and Professor Dai, are largely perplexed as well — they are unsure of their own desires and even of their own consciousness. Sexuality is complicated, especially with Siyu’s attraction to Professor Dai who also happens to be Hanfeng’s mother. There are so many twisting complications that seem to cross over one another but it’s almost as if the uncertainty contributes to the clarity of the story. It is clear that none of the characters know how they feel about each other and about themselves. This story is drastically different than Butler’s “Snow,” thriving on simplicity and naivety. But the complex nature of this story is was seems to make it more intriguing and more appealing while simultaneously steering the reader away. The ending seemed to shed light on the story while also continuing to confuse me. It puts a melancholic cap on a story that is bursting with detail and sort of leaves you to sit and think and draw your own conclusions. But it is by no means a happy ending. Essentially, the characters are left to work with their loneliness and create a world in which they can “deal with it,” collectively.

Snow

Butler does not use a lot of complicated methods in “Snow.”  It is fairly simple.  It is written in a simple style, nothing is too technical, yet it is still a powerful story.  “Snow” is in first person, told by a Vietnamese girl who works at a Chinese restaurant.  Part of the reason behind the simple language of the story is writing is probably to reflect a language barrier, but it also reflects how she is naive.  Butler makes his character seem almost childlike.  She blurts out anything that comes to mind and her internal dialogue is not overly complex.  Also, her attraction/love for Mr. Cohen is young and naive and she holds him to high regard even though she does not really know him.  Still, the conversation she has with Mr. Cohen about Christmas and snow touches does not reflect that this story is simple just because of the style it is written in.

Butler also does a good job of placing the reader in the setting.  He opens “Snow” with descriptions of Mr. Cohen and moves easily into explaining The Plantation Hunan as well as the narrator and her background.  This puts the reader right there and it becomes and easy and believable story, as well as enjoyable.  The setting and the characters are explained only through the eye of the narrator, so we have a biased view, but it is a colorful one nonetheless and it gives the reader a closer look into the thoughts and opinions that she has.  It also makes her seem like a person.  She has personality and little traits that make her human.

“Snow” is a well rounded story that uses a simple style to tell a complex story.  It’s character and place are described well and put the reader right there alongside the narrator.

“Snow” is written in first person, and has a story telling quality in the opening lines. We are in the narrator’s head, but she is also speaking to us in: “I wonder how long he watched me sleeping. I still wonder.” There is a quality of being outside of her head in this. The narrator refers to herself as girl, which I believe is meant to help the reader understand how she views herself. She mentions she is not yet married, so perhaps she does feel too young for her real age, which I don’t believe we get a solid age. I would assume twenties.

Mr. Cohen notices she is Vietnamese which illustrates a deeper level of noticing – he is paying attention to her. There is a beautiful connection through them both not celebrating Christmas and losing a parent, although the narrator seems to judge him for harping on the loss of a parent and I am not sure what that is supposed to do for the reader except create characterization. The whole story takes place inside of this restaurant, although their conversations expand far outside of this realm, and the story concludes with them moving on in their relationship outside of where it started, both literally and metaphorically.

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