Sometime Long Ago

Sun-Min, you all right today, my teacher asked. It could have been any morning during that winter that stung like numbness until late April. It was a little before eight in the morning and barely light outside. Thick grey was on the forecast. On days like that you could taste the air. It was soggy and metallic. I wrapped my black scarf, the one frayed at each end; the one mom gave me, tight around my neck. First block didn’t start until quarter past eight, but I always arrived to school early. Just part of the daily routine: ayi woke me up at seven, breakfastsometimesat seven-thirty, on the way to school by seven forty-five. My head was down, but I wasn’t sleeping. I was staring into outer space. No stars, no moons. Just emptiness, but I could breathe.

Mr. Loynes was cool, I guess. He tried to be funny in class, which usually just came out corny, but at least he tried to be entertaining. At the end of English, he always smirked like he just laid an egg or something and said, “Class, I hope the rest of your day is as awesome as me.” He was like one of those teachers who turned his head when students were a little late to class or turned in a paper a day late, as long as you had a good reason. He thought he could read me, but I didn’t give him anything. Ever.

I sat up kinda hurried, like back in elementary school when we played Heads Up, Seven Up, and faked like I was sleeping. Yes, I’m just tired, I said.

Looks gruesome out, huh?

I just said, yep it does, and played with my phone so I looked busy.

Back then classes were so easy. My report cards were always lined with A’s, even after what happened to mom. That must have been why it was never really a big deal. All my teachers knew, but only once did one of them say something. It was Mr. Loynes.

I can really sympathize with you.

I just nodded.

My step-mom died of breast cancer when I was younger.

I gave him nothing.

It was really tough to watch my dad go through it all.

I coiled the strands of my hair that fell by my cheekbone, it was a habit I had, and looked at the framed picture on his desk. To his right, a man, lanky and blond, like Mr. Loynes, probably American, too, and to his left, a petite Asian woman. I bet it was Mr. Loynes’ brother and girlfriend. They were in a jungle somewhere, maybe Indonesia, maybe Malaysia, with a congress of orangutans in the background.

If you ever need to talk or anything, just letting you know, Sun-Min, I’m here for you.

OK, was all I said. I smiled just enough for him to reassure himself he did what he could and then I returned to my seat and got all A’s, like always.

Mrs. Wallace, my counselor, was the worst. I swear she called me to her office like every other day. It was always the green slip with her signature and the Come at Class Convenience check box marked. Whenever that slip arrived my teachers said, “Sun-Min, you can go now,” even if I was taking a test.

How are you doing, Sun-Min? Her voice was almost a whisper, and her eyes got all serious like she was going to tell me she had cancer.

I’m fine. I gave her my happy voice.

Is your dad at home this week?

No, I think he’s in Bangkok, but it might be Abu Dhabi. I didn’t lie, I really didn’t know.

Is ayi there with you?

I nodded yes. She’s at home every day.

And your driver?

He’s there in the morning. If I need him I can just call.

Is school too much?

No, it’s fine. I gave her nothing.

Her eyes softened. She had kids. I think three of them, all toddlers. You could tell they drove her crazy, because her clothes were never ironed and her blond hair always looked oily, like she didn’t have time to properly wash it.

I smiled just enough for him to reassure himself he did what he could and then I returned to my seat and got all A’s, like always.

That cold spring Mrs. Wallace kept reminding me about the Terry Fox run in September and how it’d be great if I helped out. You know, it might be good for you, she said. I told her I’d think about it, but I didn’t smile. If I did I knew she’d keep asking about it. I think she got the message.

A few of my friends found out, but only Clarisse, this French girl, was cool. Everyone else either tip-toed around me or tried to be all happy all the time, like I was some Make-A-Wish® Foundation kid. Clarisse just acted like she didn’t know anything, but then one week she came in and told everyone she was moving to Guangzhou.

Why? I said.

It’s my dad’s business. He got transferred again. Clarisse had a lisp that twisted her lips when she spoke like she wore braces.

That sucks.

Yeah.

You can’t just finish out the year? There’s only like two months left.

Clarisse said she had to take a bunch of tests just to get in to the school in Guangzhou and her dad didn’t want her to fly back and forth. The next year, our junior year, was supposed to be a big deal. It’d be our first in the IB the International Baccalaureate was the diploma most of us international school kids graduated with, so the stakes were higher, that’s what our counselors said.

It wasn’t like we were best friends, but Clarisse was really nice. I went to her house a few times and her mom let us make crepes. Clarisse’s mom’s French accent when she spoke English was thick, like Nutella chocolate. “Clarisse, make sure you put the honey on the crepes. Don’t forget the honey et la crème,” she said.Clarisse was a straight-A kid like me, so the principal let her finish out her assignments online with her teachers. If you get A’s, you basically get what you want.

Mom and Dad both traveled all the time for work. We lived in San Francisco until I was about ten, and then Dad got the big raise he’d been waiting for. He was a mechanical engineer for Audi.

China? I said.

It’s only for a few years, Dad said. It was clear he and mom were both in on it and had known for a long time.

But, we’re not Chinese.

China’s changing, Sunny. Mom called me Sunny.

They let Taiwanese in China, sweetie. Dad was the eternal optimist. Besides, he said, it’ll be a new move for us, a family move.

It was just us three. I never wanted a brother or sister. We left for Beijing and visited Grandma and Grandpa and my uncles and aunts and cousins every chance we got. Dad traveled so much it seemed like I only saw him when we had holiday, and there we were in Taipei at grandma’s house sipping oolong tea and eating sun cake. After a few years Mom got bored and said she wanted to go back to work.

Who’s going to look after Minny? Dad called me Minny.

I’ll be fine, Dad. I meant it. Ayi basically already lived with us anyway.

Let’s think on it a bit more. Dad was overly cautious and protective, too. Always.

Mom gave it one more year and then her youngest sister came to live with me. Mom came home like once a month. She was a law professor at NTU in Taipei. I swam and read a lot. I didn’t like competitive sports, and running always made my ankles hurt. I was in grade eight and had long been earning the highest marks in my grade.

By the end of ninth grade Mom was already sick. She’d been diagnosed for some time, but I didn’t know. Dad didn’t tell me anything and neither did Auntie or ayi. I should have known, should’ve seen the signs, I guess. During that school year mom had rarely returned to Beijing, and over that summer, before my sophomore year, I only saw her a few times. We talked on the phone like once a week. Then, the visits got even more and more rare. That fall of my sophomore year, supposedly Mom was back in San Francisco teaching a few courses back at Berkeley, but she was really at the hospital, becoming paler and skinnier and losing her charcoal hair that was just like mine, handfuls at a time.

 *     *     *

I met Khoudia a few weeks after the funeral. She had moved to Beijing while I was in Taiwan, getting utterly sick of my family. Khoudia was in my Chinese class. Ms. Yu sat her right next to me and said in Chinese, Sun-Min, you need to get to know Khoudia. I just smiled and said, hao de, lao shi, because you have to respond to the Chinese teachers like that. They aren’t cool, like Mr. Loynes.

No one in the class could get over Khoudia’s mastery of Chinese.

I know it’s in Africa, but, like, where is Senegal? This one boy Billy Chen asked Khoudia. Billy was a jerk, typical high school boy even for this school, full of geeky overachievers.

Actually, it’s a province in China, Khoudia said in spotless Chinese, but we have a darker skin tone and are smarter. Khoudia controlled the class like a Ouija board. Ms. Yu knew it too, but I think she was kinda in awe as well. Khoudia was skinny, but her shoulders were muscular like a boy’s and her neck was firm and defined, like it protected what she was about to say. Khoudia said she was Muslim.

Not like I-pray-five-times-a-day Muslim, but I’m Muslim.

Do you go to Mosque? I said. I was curious. I’d never met a Chinese speaking Senegalese Muslim. Khoudia always wore dangling earrings, even during PE.

Girl, no. I mean, only when my dad tells me to go. Her dad was the Senegalese Ambassador. Khoudia said she was going to be the president of Senegal one day, and I never thought otherwise.

Me and Khoudia had a few classes together, but we didn’t have the same lunch time. One weekend in May she invited me to her house for the weekend. She said it was a Muslim celebration, but it’d be cool if I came, too. Have you ever eaten lamb meat?

Of course.

Not lamb meat like this, Khoudia said. It was true, I hadn’t. I was so stuffed. They slaughtered the lamb right in their house compound. Her dad bragged about how he was the grille master. They spoke French, Chinese, English, and a few other languages that I’ll just call Africanalthough if Khoudia heard me say that she’d suck her teeth at me like she did in Chinese class when she was upset with someone. The house was full, but I met Khoudia’s older brother in town from Abu Dhabi where he worked and a woman in her twenties whom Khoudia called her cousin. She ran around the house like ayi and didn’t quite shine like Khoudia. We ate more than my family did during the New Year Festival.

That night before we went to sleep Khoudia changed her shirt and bra in front of me like it was nothing. She caught me staring at her breasts and laughed. What, you’ve never seen these before?

I didn’t know her nipples would be that dark. Not that I ever really thought about it, but I figured they’d be more pink, like mine. I tried to play it off. I laughed back and buried my head in the bed’s pillows.

Khoudia made me feel like the sun shone everywhere. I changed in front of her, hoping she’d stare at my pink nipples, but she didn’t even raise an eyebrow. We talked a bit more that nightabout boys, about movies, about how difficult Algebra II was getting even though we both still had A’s.

What are you doing this summer? I said.

Going home to Senegal. Can’t wait. You?

Taiwan, and summer camp at Stanford.

I’m so full.

Me too. It was past midnight. Music was still playing downstairs. Khoudia told me that was the music that filled the streets in her hometown. We were quiet for a while, just listening.

My mom died when I was five, Khoudia finally said in Chinese.

I didn’t give her anything and closed my eyes to sleep.

I really didn’t know. I came home one Tuesday and Dad was there. So was ayi and she looked at me hard like she was trying to tell me something. I guess she didn’t trust my dad. Auntie had already left earlier that morning.

We have to go to Taipei tonight, Dad said.

No, Dad. I can’t. I have a Math test tomorrow.

I’ve already called your counselors. We’ll be gone a few weeks. Minny, Mommy’s dying.

That’s exactly how he told me. I’ll never forget that because ayi dropped a glass in the sink and it shattered. Ayi never dropped or broke anything. Dad rushed to help her. She cut herself and the blood ran from her finger like it was mad at her for ruining that moment. I watched for a minute and then went upstairs to pack.

On the plane Dad didn’t really talk. We were in first class, so I tried to watch movies. Only once did Dad touch my hand and rub my wrist like he did when I was little.

Minny, I’m sorry. We all thought she’d be okay. Your mother didn’t want us to tell you. She was afraid.

I didn’t give him anything.

Grandma and Grandpa met us at the airport. We were too late. Mom died while we were flying over the Taiwan Strait, while I was watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo dubbed over in Chinese.

It finally warmed up in May. School ended in June, but before we left for summer, and after final exams, our school had our Week without Walls program. No one in grade ten wanted to go. I didn’t mind, really. The teachers told us students we’d get to choose our trip, but really that meant we might be assigned to a trip that wasn’t lame. I was grouped with Khoudia and about twenty others. We were headed somewhere around the Great Wallagainbut this time we were backpacking. The Saturday before our departure we met at school for training. Some wilderness organization our school hired came in and showed us how to read a GPS, how to put up a tent, how to cook on a little Bunsen-burner-looking stove, how to poop in the woods. They said we had to bury our feces and carry out the dirty toilet tissue.

Khoudia sucked her teeth and then raised her hand. Excuse me, she said, um, I see little boys and girls pee and poop through their pee-hole pants like every day and moms and dads here don’t bury it.

Everybody laughed, but the camp leaders said we had to follow some “Leave no Trace” mantra. I guess it made sense, but China was seriously polluted, the least of their worries was human feces and toilet tissue in the wilderness.

We left early Monday. It took us more than half the day just to reach the trailhead. Then, it seemed like we had to stop, like, every fifty steps to rest, it was so steep. Khoudia tried to bring a rolly carry-on suitcase, but they made her transfer her clothes and snacks to a backpack that swallowed her slim frame. She was so pissed. When we got to the top, though, it was worth it. I’d never seen anything like it. Cliffs sprouted above the clouds, almost like they were daring God. The gentle green of the grass and the cool moisture in the air restrained the abrupt sharpness of the rocks, almost like the harmony between the yin and the yang.

Eh, Khoudia sucked her teeth, slowly, like the view was delicious. I thought all of China was smoke stacks and green tea and jiao zi.

It feels like this is the top of the world.

It is the top, like, right here, Khoudia said.

I hadn’t thought of it like that. The next few days were much the same. We hiked all day, set up camp, and cooked on the Bunsen-burner-looking-stove, and I did poop in the woods. Khoudia refused. I only go at my house, she said. On the second to last day our camp leaders said we had alone time in the woods. It was almost mid-day but the fog flooded our vision. We lined up in single-file and our camp leaders directed us this way and that. We had two hours all by ourselves. No iPhone, no watch, no iPad, no homework, no books, no friend to talk to. I settled under the canopy of a few trees. I could barely see five feet in front of me. The ground was soft and moist. I piled up some leaves before I sat. I laid down and fell asleep. When I woke up I thought for sure it’d been at least two hours. There was a rustling behind me. It was Khoudia.

I’m cold, she said.

How long have we been out here?

Like fifteen minutes.

What? I tried to whisper.

I know. Khoudia didn’t, but her voice couldn’t escape the fog.

Where’ve you been?

I took a poop, but don’t tell anyone. I didn’t bury it though, and I left my toilet tissue. Couldn’t be bothered.

I laughed and pictured one of the camp leaders finding her precious droppings. Then, Khoudia walked through the fog. It devoured her footsteps.

I thought about what Khoudia said. Her mom died when she was five. At least I had ten more years with Mom. Sunny, Mom’d say, a bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song. Sunny, Mom’d say, a book is like a garden. Mom read all the time, like me. Sunny, Mom’d say, Grandpa said deep doubts equal deep wisdom; small doubts equal little wisdom.

Sunny, Mom’d say, a bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.

Sometime, long ago, I was in our back yard, back in San Francisco, with Mom. Dad was taking the photo. I still have it. It’s curved now around the white edges and it’s not as pixelated as photographs today. She pushed me in the swing and the sun was bright and strong, but not brighter or stronger than Mom. She looks just like me. She pushed me on the swing all day and then we’d stop and she’d pull the crust off my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, because I couldn’t stand the texture. My hair was in pigtails. The grass was green and the air was blue and it was warm. Sunny, Mom’d say, I love you always. You’re my sun, always. My name’s Korean by tradition, but Mom loved it. Sunny, Mom’d say, your name means goodness. I smiled like the blue sky, like the green grass, like Mom’s love. I gave her all…sometime, long ago.

I had fallen asleep again. When I woke up the fog somewhat cleared. There was a caterpillar on my shoe. It didn’t have the faintest idea I was watching it move so quickly and uninhibited, almost stealth like. I felt a little like God for a minute and then remembered I had to hike downhill later that day. I made a bridge with my finger for the caterpillar and took it to the nearest tree.

A whistle blew in the distance. That was our signal. When we returned to camp everyone looked a little squeamish, like they’d been riding rollercoasters all day. The camp leaders had hot chocolate ready for us. Khoudia still stood, proud and unreserved.

What’s your mom’s name, I asked.

Huh?

Your mom. What’s her name?

Binta.

Binta?

Yeah.

What’s your mom’s name?

Mingxia.

Oh. It’s cold and foggy. I’m ready to go home, Khoudia said.

Me too. I bet Khoudia talked to her mom, too, out there in the middle of nowhere in China.

That summer, the summer before my junior year, was like every other summer. I stayed with Grandma and Grandpa, while dad still worked. I stayed around the house, reading and watching TV, and walking with Grandpa in the afternoon. He liked to play mah jongg and chess. He was really good at chess. I couldn’t beat him. I went swimming at the local pool. It was like every other summer, only we never talked about Mom. I think it was too tough for Grandma and Grandpa. I think they felt guilty for outliving her. Maybe they were quiet because they were thinking about me. I could tell Dad felt guilty. Whenever he flew in from a business trip he was loaded with gifts that I really didn’t want and he’d be all, let’s go see the city, and he’d take me to the top of Taipei 101 and buy me ice cream or take me to a movie. That’s when Dad was soft and I could tell he was sad. I knew it hurt him, so I gave him a little. Not any tears, but I smiled so he’d remember. The last three weeks of summer I went to Stanford and almost scored a perfect score on my SAT.

About a month or so into my junior year and I was back in Mr. Loynes’ homeroom class. It was before class started and I still had my head down. I was still breathing in the emptiness, and then someone pinched me. I knew it wasn’t Mr. Loynes. It was Khoudia. I thought she had transferred since I hadn’t seen her yet.

Where you been?

Senegal. Where else?

You just start school when you want?

Of course. You don’t?

I put my head down again, trying to fake like I was tired. Khoudia didn’t take it.

I know you’re not sleeping.

How do you know? My head was still down when I said that.

Khoudia didn’t answer. She just kept pinching me until I finally stopped staring into space, into the emptiness. I didn’t give her anything, but I knew she knew I knew. I knew she was thinking what I was thinking. We knew. It was sometime long ago, but now we were the caterpillars.

Bradford Philen HeadshotBradford Philen is the author of the novel Autumn Falls. His short fiction has appeared in places like The Monarch ReviewMobius: The Journal of Social Change, and WhiskeyPaper. His full list of publications can be found at bradfordphilen.com. He currently teaches in Beijing, China.