I’m not supposed to be here.
A box sits on the bookshelf, edges soft with the ghosts of the hands that came before, my mother’s and her mother and grandmother’s before her. God only knows how many generations have held the box before I ever had the privilege—the responsibility—to see it with my own eyes. Maybe it would tell me if I asked, if words could spill from under its lid like beetles across a forest floor, carrying the dirty secrets of each woman in my line in their sharp pincers. The thought is enough to override my original plan—look, don’t touch—and I stand on my toes to brush my fingers against a worn corner.
But what use do I have for words I don’t understand? What good is there in following the cadence of my ancestors’ Mandarin as a dog follows the tone of its owner’s voice with no regard for the content? I have no real connection to them, not when the extent of my cultural heritage is fumbled words over an unpracticed tongue, the leering echo of my classmates chasing me through the schoolyard as they mock my pronunciation, bamboo leaves whipping across my face and crunching below my sparkly pink velcro sneakers—
I tear my hand away, the bookshelf returning to my field of vision. The thoughts from before return, beating out a rhythm of not allowed-not allowed even as I stretch out my arms again. With a little nudging, the wooden box falls into my hand. My eyes dart unbidden to the doorway, but no shadow falls across it.
There’s no time to wait, not when someone could come in at any moment. I tuck the box into the pocket of my sweatshirt and stuff my hands in after, concealing the corners with the ridges of my knuckles. The metal of its hinges digs into my fingers, but there’s no poke, no zap, no sign that it knows I’m holding it before it’s my turn.
No one stops my journey out of the house, which is all the better when I can barely keep my hands from shaking. It usually takes precisely ten minutes to reach the closest park at my normal pace, but today the need to move outweighs the usual urge to greet the flowering vines that tug at my sleeves on the way between my neighbors’ yards.
The swings and play structure creak with rust, liable to break if anyone tries to put weight on them, but they’re not what draws me here time and again. No, the true treasure of this park is the aged willow tree sitting halfway between the playground and the sidewalk. It’s been there for me since the first time I sought refuge under its branches as a child, after a nasty fight with my parents sent me running through the neighborhood looking for a place to sit and sulk.
A new memory claims me when I sit against its trunk, with as little warning as the first—
My hands are damp and cold with sweat. She doesn’t seem to care as she clutches them in her own. We’re young and dumb, but I’m not dumb enough to misunderstand the way she leans in like they do in the movies.
Boys can kiss boys and girls can kiss girls, but everyone wants to kiss someone, Hollywood says. I should want this. But her breath wafts across my face, smelling of the green tea mints we pilfered from my house’s junk drawer, and all I can do is giggle even as she opens her eyes to glare at me. I try to ignore the relief that comes when she moves out of my space, but I think she can tell. She lets go of my hands and lies on the grass with her back to me.
It’s not fair to leave things like this when we were supposed to be spending the afternoon together like we always do. I wrack my brain for something to bridge the gap. Something that will get her to smile at me like she’s just bested me at Go Fish for the eighth time in a row.
“I would make a chemistry joke, but all the good ones argon,” I blurt. Not my finest work. It makes me sound like an elementary school science teacher trying to get her rowdy classroom excited for learning about the periodic table. But that sort of attitude might be just what we need right now.
There’s quiet, then she snorts. “That was so stupid.” But she turns back to me, mouth curling up in a smile, and maybe things are still okay.
“I think we should break up,” reads the text I receive later that night, my phone screen lighting up the cavern of blankets I’ve built over my head. “I’m tired of waiting for you to be ready. It feels like you don’t like me as much as I like you.”
“Okay.” I hesitate, then type out a second message. “Sorry.” It’s annoying that I’m the only one apologizing, when it’s not like she even asked before trying to kiss me, but I know I hurt her feelings. I shouldn’t be mad at her for that.
That doesn’t quell the irritation that grows when “seen” pops up under my final message and doesn’t go away. Maybe I should be sad or even heartbroken, but all I can muster is frustration. I did everything I was supposed to, didn’t I—?
The echo of resentment lingers in my chest, even as I feel the next memory dragged out from the recesses of my brain. “Wait!” But my cry goes unheeded as the memory tingles through my palms where skin meets wood—
“Bet you I can guess what you are.”
He gives me a smarmy look that I want to smack off his stupid face. That’s a thought I should feel bad for having, especially after he offered to drive us to the beach for our third date, but I’m getting sick of listening to the “shoulds” in my life. If I don’t want to kiss girls, I should want to kiss guys, but I’m clearly not doing this rebound thing right because I hardly even want to be around him. He’s been patient—not as patient as she was, but patient nonetheless—but I’m sure he’ll get tired of this waiting game soon.
That’s not what we’re talking about, though, so I keep my thoughts to myself. “What does that mean?” I ask instead, digging my toes into the warm sand. Unable to look at him any longer, I turn my eyes to the water and bite my lip against the tug in my chest that urges me to just walk in and never look back.
“I mean, you’re only half-white, right?”
This can’t be going anywhere good. I don’t want to play this game, especially not with him. Still, he’s my ride home. Even though I’m certain I could find another way back, I don’t want to deal with the hassle if he turns out to be the kind of person who would abandon someone who pissed him off enough. “Uh-huh.”
My disinterest doesn’t faze him as he looks at me, squinting his eyes and rubbing his chin and overall making too much of a show of thinking it over. I don’t know if I’d prefer him getting it wrong or right. I’d prefer it if he doesn’t guess at all. Eventually, though, he snaps his fingers and dashes those hopes.
“Other half’s Asian,” he continues, and I wonder idly if I can astral project to France if I try hard enough. “Chinese, to be specific.”
As it turns out, I do know which option I prefer. Bitter fury rises in me in a cacophony that’s almost enough to drown out the sound of the waves. How dare he get it right, this boy who tracked me down after my calculus class just to ask me out and who had the gall to take me to the ocean for our third date, as if the charm of the sea can make up for his half-assed, cocky excuse for flirting? Everyone else I’ve ever known has been perfectly happy to rub in the fact that no matter what I do or say, I’ll never be enough to fit in with that half of me. And now here he is, trying to shove me into that box. The thrumming under my breastbone grows stronger, begging me to leave behind this trainwreck of a conversation and dive under the waves. But I have no control over the fickle temperament of the sea, and I don’t have a death wish.
“I’m right, aren’t I?”
I think I hate him. Deep breath in, deep breath out. I nod.
“You know what would be a good prize?” he asks.
There’s no denying what’s coming, like running into a dead end in a horror game as the background music hitches and speeds, the monster only three steps behind. “What,” I say anyway, as if that can stop the monster’s claws from creeping up my back.
“A kiss.” He doesn’t bother waiting for permission before leaning in. Apparently, winning a bet I didn’t even agree to entitles him to stepping all over my bodily autonomy. Who says romance is dead?
The tide crashes against the shore, swallowing the sound of his nose breaking under my fist. I’m gone before he can recover his wits. Inconvenience be damned, I can get my own ride home, so I pull out my phone and—
My heartbeat flutters in my fingers as they brush against the cashier’s, and her eyes crinkle in the corners, her smile like a secret—
The edge of the potsticker in my hands is crimped unevenly and ground meat pokes through the corner but I made it, all on my own—
Glass, cold against my forehead as I poke and prod and squint at my face in the mirror, cheeks, nose, eyelids—
It only takes a flick of my wrist for the box to leave my hand and clatter against the sidewalk, its contents spilling across the concrete. I shouldn’t have done this. Shouldn’t have coveted it before my time, shouldn’t have taken it out of the house, shouldn’t have thrown the damn thing after letting it rifle through my mind like a possum in the trash. I stand, and my knees pop when they straighten.
There’s no magic artifacts among the scattered keepsakes, no spellbooks or crystal balls or cursed amulets. I’m not sure why I expected any in the first place, but it can’t just be the box that’s special, can it?
My hand brushes against paper, a faded ticket for the Chinese opera, and fear-grief-anger seizes my throat. There’s whispering from the wings, one of the soprano’s eyes meeting mine when I turn to look before her gaze skitters away like a terrified mouse. She isn’t quick enough to disguise the pity in her expression, twisting the knife that’s already skewered me.
After a week bedridden with pneumonia and months of vocal exercises and practice working to regain the control I once had, this is what I’m rewarded with. I’m finally allowed to rehearse with everyone else, and my voice betrays me and cracks on a high note I never had difficulty reaching before. Our director doesn’t have to say a word for me to know what he’s thinking, and through the blur of my tears, I manage to excuse myself and make my way off the stage. What if this is it? What if I can never sing how I used to? This is what I do best, these people are like my family, I can’t lose this—
I jerk my hand back, and my great-grandmother’s memory fades from my mind. The tears stay, stinging at the corners of my eyes until I wipe them away with a sleeve. Her frustration, as familiar as my own, echoes in my chest even as I reach for the small picture frame containing a single pressed white bloom. Despite my rough treatment of the box containing it, the glass of the frame is completely intact. Small mercies.
This one takes hold like lichen on a tree trunk, dread trickling down my spine as the blurry face of a woman swims in my vision, her features ever-shifting. Even though I can’t pin down her face, I know she’s smiling when she presses a small envelope into my hand.
“Just a little keepsake from the ceremony,” she says with a wink. “I’m glad you’re finally settling down with a nice man, dear.”
Her words make my stomach turn, but I muster up a smile and open the envelope. Inside is a pressed white carnation preserved between two sheets of translucent paper, the same kind of flower that stood at attention weeks ago when I walked down the aisle toward what my life had become.
“Thank you.” The words are heavy on my tongue, but not quite as heavy as the weight of the blossom in my hands. I refrain from collapsing into the nearest chair until she leaves, still cradling the flower.
Unlike the rest, my grandmother’s memory fades naturally, leaving the hollowness in my chest as the only sign it was there in the first place. Even after I gather my wits again, I can’t bring myself to touch any of the other keepsakes. These memories aren’t meant for me. Not yet.
Instead, I cover my hands with the sleeves of my sweatshirt and begin putting everything back where it belongs. It isn’t until all of them are tucked safely back into the box that I realize none of the keepsakes belong to my mother. She’s shown me before what memento she intends to give up: a small, worn ballpoint pen. That pen is nowhere to be found, even when I check the grass for anything that might have rolled off the sidewalk. If she hasn’t put it in, that can only mean that she doesn’t plan to hand the box to me anytime soon.
I roll the thought around in my head and find that it doesn’t rankle me the way it might have only a few hours ago. The memories the box dragged to the surface today were too much to handle, the hurt and anger and confusion still as fresh as when I first buried them. If I can’t face those emotions, how can I face everything I’ve lived through? Everything my ancestors have lived through?
I look down at the box in my hands, as if it might give me the answers to my questions. But in all honesty, I don’t need to consult it to know. The simple answer is that I’m not ready, and maybe that’s okay. This box isn’t my responsibility yet. It won’t be for a while longer. I pick myself up off the ground and put the box back into my sweatshirt pocket. It’s time to go home.