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Asian American Creative Nonfiction East Asian

jiāoqiǎnyánshēn (交浅言深) Chinese, v. - to have a deep and intimate conversation with a stranger.


The phone had been ringing nonstop for the past twenty minutes from an unknown number. Even when I denied the call, or put my phone on silent, I couldn’t get it to stop ringing. Despite knowing that this was definitely the first five minutes of a horror movie, I answered it. And as soon as the voice on the other end spoke, I knew who it was. 

My birth mother.

“Hello?” I called out, and she answered me. I didn’t think she would answer me. Didn’t think she could hear me. Didn’t think she’d listen.

“Hello.” She replied, in perfect English. But it wasn’t English. But it wasn’t Mandarin, either. I don’t know what language it was, but it was one that we both knew. That we could both understand. Maybe we were the only two people in the entire world who could truly understand each other. 

“Are you really who I think you are?” I asked her, even though I feared the answer as much as I anticipated it. 

“Yes.” She answered. Yes, I am your mother. Yes, I’ve been looking for you. Yes, I’ve always missed you. Yes, yes, yes. 

Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe, all the oxygen in my lungs having abandoned me. My mother didn’t abandon me. Didn’t want to leave me. Didn’t choose to give me up. That’s what I wanted her to say. I wanted to ask her all the questions I’ve had building up inside of me for the past twenty years. Things that I never dared say aloud, that I’d only allowed myself to dream of during sleepless nights. Things I never thought I’d even have the chance to say. But now that I could, I couldn’t get the words out. They were all tangled up on my tongue and between my teeth. I felt like my jaw had been wired shut, and nothing could pry them out of me. But I so desperately needed to say them. If I didn’t, I would choke on all the things I never said because I wasn’t brave enough. And I’d never let myself digest them, so they’d just sit on my tongue turning rotten. They’d leave a bad taste in my mouth. I took a deep breath, swallowing past the tightness that had wrapped itself around my throat.

“Why did you leave me?”

I managed to get the words past my lips and out into the open air, where they hung like all the empty space between us. Silence. I couldn’t take back my question, couldn’t have her take me back. It was too late for that. Too late to go back, to before she left me. But now that I’ve said it aloud, I’ve made myself vulnerable to her answer. Made myself visible to her gaze, letting her eyes cut through me and see inside my heart. The heart that has been harbouring all of the unspoken words and broken promises between us for all these years, weighed down by her existence but left empty by her absence. 

Because a baby is born into the world expecting someone to be there to hold them, to care for them. To love them. But she had taken the word mother, and turned it into stranger. And I don’t know how to ask her to love me. I don’t know why I asked her a question that I already knew her answer to. I knew why she left me. She couldn’t keep me. It was as simple as that. Still, I asked, because I wanted her to tell me that it wasn’t my fault. Wanted her to tell me that if things were different, she would never have let me go. Wanted her to let me cry and wipe away my tears, to look at me and see herself in my gaze. Wanted her to see me for who I am. Wanted her to choose me. Wanted her to call me hers. Wanted her to hug me and hold me and never let me go. Wanted her to promise that she’d never leave me again. 

I wanted and I wanted and I wanted and I never got what I asked for, until I got it all at once. Until I was overwhelmed by her, and all the sadness and grief and hurt she brought. That she came with. I think it is in our nature, to carry loss with us. It was like I’d been living with a cup filled to the brim with water, that I’d been carefully balancing all my life. And I didn’t dare move too quickly—moving forward would make me spill it. So I stayed in one place because I knew that if I spilt even one drop, the rest would come pouring out. I held the glass as tightly as I could, never letting it go or setting it down. Even when holding it hurt me, made my arm go numb, and my body ache. I couldn’t put the glass down because it would easily break. But then she bumped so carelessly into me, making me spill all of my secrets and fears, and now I’m left with the mess that she left behind. That she didn’t bother to clean up. She just walked away. Away from me. She didn’t even apologize.

I wanted to hear her say she was sorry. Wanted to hear her say she’s thought about me every day. Wanted to hear her say she never meant to leave me, to hurt me. Wanted, wanted, wanted. Again, I wanted too much. Wanted something and someone that maybe I didn’t deserve. That maybe I didn’t need. I wanted and I needed and she just left me wanting and needing. And now all I can do is feel the s p a c e between us. Because I wanted her to say things I wasn’t ready to hear. I wanted her to say the three words I’ve been waiting my whole life to hear.

“I love you.”

But she didn’t say that. She didn’t say anything at all. The empty air was silent except for the ragged sound of my breath and the harsh pounding of my heart. Her silence was physical, a manifestation of all the loss she left me with. And I could never get back what I had lost, what she took from me. And when I looked down at the phone screen, I realized that we had been disconnected. And I was the only one left still hanging onto the line. I frantically hit the redial button, but all I got was an answering machine telling me that the number was unavailable. Would always be unreachable. Maybe it belonged to someone else entirely. Maybe it had never existed at all. 

And when I looked back on the call history, the screen had been wiped clean. We were a blank slate, released from our past lives so we could move on to our new ones. Ones that didn’t have each other in it. It was as if she had never called at all. As if we were never connected in the first place. Because I can’t live carrying this glass of water anymore. It hurts too much. Because my question still hangs in the air, left unanswered. It will always be unanswered.

Maybe she didn’t understand me, after all.


September 01, 2022 23:50

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