By Ploi Pirapokin
How does one say what if without reproach?
The last time I saw my ex-best-friend-turned-lover was in 2014, when I had invited him to a reading hosted by Kundiman, an Asian American writers’ retreat. C. had recently moved to New York for graduate school and agreed to accompany me. Once I saw him, my surroundings melted and I’d forgotten that we were inside of the Lincoln Center, underneath blush lighting, and in front of floor-to-ceiling windows where black bags of rubbish lined the streets. We hadn’t spoken in months, but if I could endure our initial Howhaveyoubeens? and Sonicetoseeyouagains, we’d have no problem firing up where we had left off.
When the event ended, we fawned over Bao Phi, having watched him spit poetry on Def Jam back when YouTube hosted pirated clips ripped from DVDs we couldn’t afford. A new friend from the retreat, smoking with us, asked me if C. and I knew each other from Hong Kong.
“We’ve been friends since high school,” I said.
C. nodded enthusiastically.
That was true, but to say that we were close would have been a lie.
Afterwards, C. headed back to his unadorned dorm room. In the past, we would’ve left together, feigning interest in John Mayer’s latest song and dating scandal; gossiping about our classmates back home until one of us leaned in for a kiss. Only I had to go back to Fordham University to finish my workshop.
No matter how many years went by, I still saw him as the round-eyed, long-faced boy who walked into class as the new kid in Year Eight. We went to the kind of school where kids knew one another since starting, but we instantly clicked over books and punk rock. We weren’t the right kind of brown in our British secondary school: two Southeast Asian kids (him, Malaysian; me, Thai) with bronze chicken legs and dark, coarse hair; melodic tones kindling our Cantonese, and eating more pungent, spicier variants of regional dishes than our friends. We spent a lot of our teenage years narrowing our eyes at our local classmates (a term we used to differentiate Hong Kongers from everybody else) who joked about how cheap, dirty, and cutthroat we were based on Southeast Asian stereotypes the dominant culture had about us. We grew up in the early 2000s. Pale, skinny Cantopop stars sold us whitening cream to wash the tan off our faces. We’d constantly be mistaken for the help at fancy restaurants. And drunk, old white expats would ask C. how much I cost when we caught the last MTR home.
Over time, these comments reverberated in us less, but we lacked the vocabulary to articulate how much they scorched us then. Talking about them made us real. We knew how it felt to have our bodies speak for us first. We spent countless hours on the phone until two years into our friendship, I confessed I had a crush on him.
“What about M.?” he had asked.
I had been seeing another boy at the time. We broke up shortly after C. and I planned to date. M. cried when he approached me to find out if I liked someone else, and I carried guilt for choosing C. We had shared ourselves so freely when we were together that my guilt and I melted into one.
I can’t remember how we stopped being friends, but C. burned me by never explicitly affirming exclusivity. I also never asked to define us. I was afraid to ask, because asking opened the possibility of him saying no. I wasn’t prepared to lose him, the one who relieved me, or rather, be abandoned for someone else. Since he didn’t rush to call me his, I took that to mean that I was free to go out with whoever I pleased, so I did.
He stopped talking to me after that. We mostly ignored each other until the first July back from college when we converged outside of a club to hand-off our fake IDs to our underaged friends. During our walk back on an overpass, shadows of our younger selves ran by hand in hand, shoving us into each other before disappearing into fluorescent buildings. All that was left were echoes of dispassionate Howhaveyoubeens from C., and Sonicetoseeyouagains boiling in my throat until I couldn’t contain them anymore.
“Did I never matter to you?” I blurted out.
“I didn’t want anyone to gossip about us,” he looked straight through me.
We would hook up every holiday for the next seven years.
We dated other people for years in between our trysts, and he even introduced me to a long-time girlfriend of his because we were both writers and neither of us had parents who supported creative endeavors. I didn’t sleep with him that summer in 2014, even though we had forged an unspoken deal over the years that if we were seeing someone abroad, we’d still light a candle for one another. As long as our partners didn’t know about it, we didn’t have to explain.
Hong Kong, a place we’d return to in our conversations and during school breaks, acted like a revolving door to the what-if that still glowed inside of us. Instead of purging ourselves of our fallacy—so that the time we had invested in each other and the wildfire of decimated hearts we’d left strewn on concrete sidewalks would not be wasted—we conflagrated. Our routine was simple. Since our parents lived and worked there, we’d hear from our mutual friends about who was coming back and planned to meet: bumping into one another at buffet brunches, wandering through wet markets, and sliding after-hours into seats at McDonald’s. As more cha chaan teng shuttered, restaurants changed ownership, and open bars were replaced by rooftop clubs, we cared less about where and how we’d revive our hyphenated bond, than when.
Fueled by time and distance apart, we retreated back to that flame we held for each other, refusing to acknowledge that neither of us offered the other stability. Desiring permanence in a city that sold space like stocks was a pipedream. How can you miss what’s rented, borrowed, or not yours? Our water, our produce, and our electricity are from the mainland. Our degrees, our English, and even our iPod playlists, were imported. We didn’t own very many clothes and shoes because our shelves only held what we carried. We didn’t own homes because none of our salaries covered the down payment for an apartment, or even individual rooms since we still shared them with our families. Nothing is created in Hong Kong therefore nothing can be destroyed, just transformed. We began as ghosts, our lives like wispy clouds blown in the direction our parents took, and we tried to find the source of that smoke for proof that we were alive.
To our friends abroad, C. and I were a romantic comedy with a diasporic-narrative twist, bound by bodies forging a home in a new place while longing for the old one. Rejected by our parents’ culture, by the local culture we weren’t natives of, and by the American culture we couldn’t claim—C. and I found consistency in reigniting a passion continuously snuffed. In the midst of assimilation, whether we were lost finding dim sum inside a renovated Silvercord, ordering Horlicks at Mido Café in tainted accents, or studying abroad on visas, we’d rather uncover our light from the past, inured to soothing the burns that we had survived.
“We began as ghosts, our lives like wispy clouds blown in the direction our parents took, and we tried to find the source of that smoke for proof that we were alive.”
To our friends in Hong Kong, we were childhood crushes yet to be extinguished. Our attraction required no exchange of money, influence, or cachet, but a shared belief that a spark will prevail by sheer determination and tenacity. Surrendering control over our futures made sense. How can anybody plan for anything? In a flash, Mandarin appeared as part of our core curriculum. We pledged allegiance to new flags. The Crown was succeeded by the State. Train stations emerged with direct routes to China, and the H&Ms morphed into Zaras, into Chow Tai Fooks, into Sasas. The land became unhistoried like our existence. All we could do was to leave charred imprints, warmed when touched.
C. distinguished my presence to whatever surrounding we found ourselves in. I’d call him all the way in Warwick from my student housing in San Diego to listen to him say, “You can leave that party anytime,” and “You were smart in high school!” and “See you at home.” Together, we were reprieved from uncertainties—talking, crying, making love—syncing back in an inferno of replaying a night out with our friends, deliberating what our parents meant when they punished us, and listening to one another’s grievances without ever addressing what we were, and are doing. Where we were going. Who we were becoming. This soldered us together, uniting us more than our bodies ever did.
No one understood why I admired how similar we were, how caressing his hairless, lithe-limbed body felt like I was wrapping my own arms around myself. How scratching his small mosquito bites and tracing my mouth around his dark areolas meant I relieved myself too. In return, he talked to me in gentle ways I didn’t know I deserved, missed, and needed. When my shades were drawn, I’d peer at him from across a small dip where our pillows touched. Running my fingers across his high cheek-bones, I’d wish this was good enough—we didn’t need to define or confirm what we did so effortlessly—fusing to fit in that slim chasm between us. We slept facing each other, bunching covers in the middle, leaving our asses bare to the dark.
For the rest of my Kundiman retreat, C. kept texting, “Who do you hang out with there?” “What are you working on?” and “Are you going straight back to San Francisco or do you have a few days left in New York City?” We spent a sunny Tuesday sitting inside a balmy Russian bathhouse while other patrons ogled at us for being the only two in swimsuits, the only sepia-toned bodies dipping in and out of the steam room and icy pool. We cleared out within two hours to a soba restaurant next door smelling of chrome and chlorine.
“You didn’t even last ten whole minutes in the heat,” C. said, leaning over the table. “You’ve lost your stamina and we grew up in real humidity!”
“I didn’t immigrate here to sweat,” I quipped.
He laughed and his face crackled. Parts of his face, lodged in different memories we shared, glimmered in my mind. I recalled that same gummy smile appearing after we blew bubbles underwater at my apartment complex’s pool, after we dove into a lake atop a limestone mountain, after he grazed my hand reaching for a large drink at the movies. His face was a focal highlight that blurred what I resisted to confront.
I didn’t have parents who called me beautiful, who encouraged me to write, who didn’t threaten to remove me from the will at every instance of perceived disobedience. I didn’t have parents who discussed my adoption in loving ways, and in their frustrated attempts to quell a rebellious teenager, they threatened to send me back to my birth parents. I didn’t have parents free of bipolar disorder and depression, whose words didn’t calcify me. I knew I’d eventually have to parent myself, so that these expectations and privileges did not become habits I imitated to fill a cavern so deep and desperate for acceptance.
Over the years, I blamed my parents less for their insecurities. They couldn’t bear a child who resembled them and were determined to raise me the way they were, using the only tools they knew. I had clung onto C. because whatever we had was better than what I knew. Even though it stung, I’d rather hold onto what if than live emptyhanded.
On the day I left for graduate school, a year before I had gone to Kundiman, when it was sure to C. that I would never return to live in Hong Kong ever again, he asked to say goodbye. We chose to meet at Full Cup Café, a seven-story cafe with colonial style terraces and decorated with Amélie posters, where I had spent most of my summers writing before meeting him elsewhere. C. pulled out a scrapbook I had mailed him a year before.
“What does this mean?” he demanded, slapping it down.
“That I loved you,” I said.
He gritted his teeth, flipping through our photos glued on the pages, as though he wanted me to say something else.
“You choose what to do with that information,” I said.
“Every time I think we could work, I think back to what I thought about you at fourteen when you fucked that other guy,” he said. “Then I can’t get rid of how much I hated you for hurting me.”
“Wasn’t that more than ten years ago?”
“What is it about me that you love?”
“How you make me feel.”
He left again.
I couldn’t change the past by going back, even if I knew how to take care of the same wounds I’d been tending to all of my life. What if home was not a solid, tangible container of hope, but a space to question reality? My parents were not the reason I stayed with C., but to suggest that they didn’t impact me in any way would be untrue. What if what coheres and sustains us are not things and people, but our routines? A continued courage to dream beyond what we already know. To discern what a cycle is, and what keeps us from repeating it.
I used to want my home to be a never-ending cycle of looking at C’s face in front of mine. I knew this could never happen, because I’d cupped his cheeks before, and they have turned to ash.
Sitting across from C. at that soba noodle place, I needed to be free of him. I didn’t want to be a match he struck to ignite an old wick anymore, even though a small part of me wanted him to lean over, grab me by the shoulders and say, “What if I followed you back to San Francisco?” I wanted him to admit that all of this time meant something, that I was ardent and precious enough to see it through to the end, to change for. Except it would never be enough just to be followed, to be chosen.
What if home then was an ouroboros, a never-ending flaming circle of shit that we’re supposed to learn from by leaving? What if we removed the fuel from the source, or smothered the flames completely, or slowed down the chemical reactions? Would we birth whole and bloody from the shadow of our bare asses hanging out for the world to see? Would we be reminded of how bright our reflections are, without needing to be lit?
C. reached for his wallet when the bill came. I insisted we split it.
“For old times’ sake,” he said, placing his hand on top of mine.
What happens after a fire? Who dusts, sweeps, and tosses the remains out into open fields, to sow, replant, and tend to new growth? Do you need to know how a burn feels to recognize what it is like to be soothed? Or risk never appreciating that cool, tingling sensation?
I thought back to how once, the very person who hurt me also consoled me. When we touched, we didn’t have to think about all the things that we did or didn’t do, what we gave one another or what we took. I thought about the afternoon, after our first time, how C. rolled himself off me to the side and dug his arm underneath me to prop me on his smooth chest. Sprawled across the bed, he raised my stereo to my face with his other arm and tried to record that moment on a cassette tape; pressing the red circle and asking me how I felt now that we’ve done it. I couldn’t stop giggling. I laughed even harder when we replayed the tape and my responses were cut, his husky voice alone sounding like some creepy serial killer from a movie. He tried again, but the tape kept jamming in my old machine. Frustrated, he tossed the stereo aside. This was perhaps the only time I’ve seen him be serious, holding back a breath before whispering: “But how will we remember?”
Ploi Pirapokin is the Nonfiction Editor at Newfound Journal, and the Co-Editor of The Greenest Gecko: An Anthology of New Asian Fantasy, forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in 2021. Her work is featured and forthcoming in Tor.com, Pleiades, Apogee Journal, The Offing, Ninth Letter, and more. She can be found on www.ppirapokin.com.