Snow can fall at a speed of up to two meters per second. In the right moment, however, it could feel like an eternity.
Zhu leaned back in her chair, listening to it creak. She listened to the monotonous clicking of a dozen office keyboards. The two-note tone of phones rang further off, followed by muffled conversations. She listened while wishing she could step outside and be a part of winter. Be a part of it like she had as a kid.
Even after twelve years, that same train of thought came with every snowfall. She breathed in, leaned back, and let the memories of that time envelop her.
- - -
Zhu would pelt that new kid with a snowball if it was the last thing she did.
She’d nail him with it. Really show it to him and have him go home in tears. With a concussion. Well, maybe not that hard. It’d ruin her thirteen years of never getting into trouble.
Fortune favored her—the new kid walked the same path home as her. Zhu sat behind a pine tree, her hands crafting a chunk of snow into a perfect snowball. She’d wait for him to walk by, then she’d pitch a fastball that would knock him out.
It’d teach him to make fun of her accent.
She tossed the snowball into the air and caught it on its way down, catching sight of the boy walking down the path. He stared into the sky, hands in his pockets. His breath appeared as white clouds.
“Weston!” Zhu called, jumping up. “Take this!”
“Zhu?” he turned to her. “I was looking all over for you-”
She wound back and launched the snowball. It flew through the air and…
Oh. She missed. The snowball went wide, cruising past his head. It hit the slush-coated roads and broke into crystallized dust. Weston stood stunned, then smiled. He reached down for a handful of snow. He formed it into an imperfect, rough globe, and tossed it at her.
The snowball struck her chest, breaking apart against her jacket. She stumbled back. He could throw! Surely she couldn’t win here, but what was a competition without a challenge? Zhu ducked behind a pine tree. She bent down and cupped snow between her gloves as Weston threw another chunk, striking the tree, shaking snow off its branches.
Zhu peeked from the right and sent another snowball his way. It struck him in the arm. He dropped the snow he held, and Zhu couldn’t help but laugh. That had to be a point, right? Weston jumped over the path’s snowbank and took cover behind a pine tree. The exhibition match continued. She lost track of the score as snowballs flew.
The sky grew a light purple, and the streetlamps illuminated a soft snowfall. Zhu could feel the cold settling into her skin—the space where her glove connected to her jacket was as numb as it could get, but she would not lose. The flame of competition roared within her.
A large chunk of snow hit her head. She stumbled back and brought a hand to her face.
“Hold on,” she said, “time out. I think there was ice in that one. Oh, I’m bleeding.”
Weston’s smile disappeared. He rushed towards her, and Zhu threw handfuls of loose snow at his face.
“Got you,” she said, laughing.
“Mean trick.” Weston brushed himself off, then turned back to the pathway. “My hands are too cold. You win. And, I meant to tell you earlier, I’m sorry I made fun of your accent. I think you sound cool.”
“Apology accepted. We’re cool.” She stepped over the snowbank and walked beside him. “And just so you know, when you were mocking me, you did a Japanese accent. I’m Chinese, you moron. I mean, have you heard my name?”
“Yeah, yeah. Let me make it up to you,” Weston said. “I can make you a cup of hot chocolate at my house.”
Zhu accepted. She followed Weston to his house only five minutes away from hers. She had to maneuver around the moving boxes scattered inside, and only the bare furniture was available as she waited.
They sat outside on the porch, watching the snowfall, drinking hot chocolate, and speaking in between sips. They’d both been transfer students. Zhu told him of how her father worked to teach Mandarin, and she moved from Beijing to the United States, then finally to Toronto, Canada. Weston spoke of how his dad fixed up planes, always moving, and he’d been to three different schools in the past few years.
The loneliness of moving to an unfamiliar place, with the fear of it being temporary and impermanent, retreated further and further away from her as they talked. He could genuinely say, ‘I understand,’ instead of it only being sympathetic.
She could relate to someone.
It felt nice to be understood.
The months passed by, and Zhu found herself inseparable from him. She had a friend she could really talk to for once. They played cards at the cafeteria, read together during recess breaks, and studied at the library after hours—she excelled in English while West didn’t miss a beat in math. She found herself smiling every day on the walk to school.
The teasing from the other kids didn’t bother her as much as she thought it would. She could shrug off the ‘when are you two getting married?’ and ‘you two are too different to be together.’ She ignored the chalkboards covered in her and West’s name, the laughing, and the whistling as she sat beside him—none of it mattered to her, as happy as she was.
The snow melted, months racing by, and the other kids grew bored with trying to prod a reaction out of her. With graduation in a few weeks, she planned with West to go to the same high school. The thought excited her. She liked thinking of their future together.
It came crashing down when he called her home phone and told her his father got a job in Ottawa. He would have to move again.
“What do you mean?” Zhu asked, her voice a whisper. She stood in her room, watching the rain tap against her window. The phone’s static buzzed in her ear.
“You can’t leave,” she said. “Not now. I can’t…” her words broke off as a tear ran down her face. Nausea crept over her in waves. Back to being alone. She rested a trembling hand on her violin case, and it toppled over.
It took an eternity before West spoke.
“I don’t have a choice in this. If I could stay, I would.” He sighed. The rain picked up, pelting the window glass. “Zhu, you should know better than anyone that this is not up to me.”
“You can’t convince him?”
She tried to hush her sobs, but the noises found their way out.
Time slowed to a crawl as she cried.
“I’ve heard enough,” West said.
The phone clicked. Zhu dropped it on the carpet and stumbled to her knees. She’d never heard him angry before. She’d never heard that tone of annoyance. He didn’t understand…
Then came the storm clouds. The mental shut off. The inability to leave her bed, and the emptiness of the dark as she stared up at the ceiling. Days before graduation passed by without a word spoken between one another. If her parents would have allowed it, she would’ve stayed at home sick until the summer break started, and then Weston would be gone.
At the graduation ceremony, she approached the boy one last time.
“I guess this is goodbye,” she said.
That was it.
She would never speak to him again. She walked the stage, taking her diploma, shaking the principal’s hand, and feeling nothing but the guttural emptiness of knowing she would be alone.
Summer passed one slow day at a time. She practiced her violin, but couldn’t hear the music as she once did. Conversations didn’t click when she tried to talk with others, and it left her as an outcast.
A year passed, and the same kids who teased her came back and joked about how her only friend left her.
It sapped her liveliness. She became a walking shell—one that could leave a room breathless at a violin performance, but couldn’t feel a spark while doing so. The words, ‘Uh-huh,’ haunted her. They didn’t give any closure.
It had been her fault, hadn’t it? She walked home with the thought bouncing around her head. She’d made him angry when he needed someone to understand, didn’t she? Zhu sat down on a park bench, the cool winds of Autumn sending leaves tumbling by, her scarf fluttering along with the breeze. She reached for a pen from her bag and broke a page off a notebook.
She’d write him a letter. An apology. The post office would have his address, and she could stamp it, send it out, and move on. Under the shade of a shedding tree, her pen scratched against the paper.
I played my first solo piece in front of an audience the other day. You’ve never heard me play my violin before, have you? I’ve gotten really good! I used to tell my parents that I hated it, and the lessons took up too much of my time and were boring, but now I’m glad they kept me going to them.
I hope you are doing okay. I hope you fit in at your new school. I’m sorry I got mad at you for leaving.
Do you remember me, West?
She folded the letter up before she could edit it or read it over. A bit more than an apology. The post office sent it off without question, and as September blended into October, she checked the return box on each walk home from school. Eight days later, a letter came in reply.
Her heart skipped a beat at the sight of it. Her name, written across the front in his boyish, messy handwriting, made her smile for the first time in ages. She brought it to the park, brushed leaves off the bench, and sat in the shade of the slowly wilting tree.
After reading his letter until she had it memorized, she found her notebook and drafted a reply.
Seeing your letter in the mailbox made me so happy…
He’d written and told her of how he turned sixteen and began welding on an assembly line after school—a responsibility he treasured. He wouldn’t be moving around anymore, too. His father was happier than ever with his position. Best of all, and it made her tear up while reading it the first couple of times, West wrote that he missed her.
They exchanged letters each week. When her father told of her of one last relocation, Zhu rushed to send a letter out of their regular sequence. At her desk, December’s frost building on the window above her, she penned out her thoughts.
It’ll be a plane ride between us soon. My dad wants to move and teach all the way in California. Could I take the train and see you one last time? Could you show me Ottawa before I leave? Toronto is lonely without you.
Your closest friend,
West wrote back and agreed on a date a few days after Christmas. He spoke of a long canal they could skate on, and ice sculptures they could admire. Zhu drafted out a train schedule and drew a red line from Toronto to Ottawa on a map. She needed to take the 1:45 p.m train first, then switch trains at Kingston station at 3:30 p.m, and finally, make it there on time by 6:00 p.m.
I’m excited! She wrote the words while smiling. 6 PM it is! Just make sure to wait for me if I’m late. It’ll be my first time taking the train alone.
On the day they planned, she awoke with her heart beating hard. She’d finally get to see the boy who heard out everything she said. She pocketed her saved-up allowance and made way for the train station. Her boots crunched into the snow as she stood at the crowded terminal. It bustled with people returning home after Christmas, so many she could hardly see in front of her, and they pushed her left and right as she shoved her way through.
A man tripped beside her, and Zhu tumbled. She sprawled to the ground where her train schedule flew from her hands, drifting off in the wind.
“Oh, sorry about that,” he said, reaching a hand down to her. “Didn’t see you there.”
The train schedule. Zhu’s heart stopped as she watched it blow over the tracks. The 1:30 p.m train arrived in a cacophony of noise, the wheels grinding to a stop and destroying her paper beneath.
“Sorry, kid.” The man helped her up. “You okay?”
She shook him off and found a seat on the 1:30 p.m train, staring ahead with wide eyes.
What stop did she need to get off at?
When did the next train she needed to switch to arrive?
Why didn’t she hold on tighter to the paper?
Her vision blurred. She tapped the shoulder of the passenger in front of her.
“Excuse me,” she said.
“Désolé, je ne parle pas anglais.”
“Je…droit…” she couldn’t remember her French lessons. Zhu sunk back down in her seat. She had to stop at the Kingston station, right? That rang a bell. The 3:30 p.m train at Kingston. She’d ask a conductor from there.
She kept an eye on her watch, counting the minutes. 2:30. 3:00. 3:15. The train rolled with its rhythmic hum. A screen wrote the stops out above, and Zhu waited for Kingston, but it didn’t come. She shot from her seat and made her way up to ask the conductor.
“Kingston?” he said, “that’s the one-forty-five train, you’re on the one-thirty.” Her breath caught in her throat. She’d written 1:45 p.m and forgotten in the rush. “You’ll have to get off here and catch the next one back to Toronto, then you’ll have to take the…” he snapped his fingers, “five-fifteen train.”
Five-fifteen. She switched trains and laid her watch out by the window, en route back to Toronto. If she still left for Ottawa, it’d be around 9:30 when she arrived. West would be home by then, thinking she’d stood him up. And that really would be it.
7:30. She got off at Kingston, determined to see the journey through, thinking she could catch him at the ice sculptures. The next train came late. 8:50. Snow drifted down in light waves. 10:15. She made her way into the Ottawa terminal to renew her ticket.
A deep yawn caught her off guard.
“Hey,” a voice spoke, “you’re a couple of minutes late.”
The only person waiting at the benches stood up and stretched. Zhu rushed to embrace West and nearly sent him off balance. She held him tight. His warmth melted away the stress of the past hours, and all that remained was joy and bliss.
“You…waited for me,” she whispered.
“Did you not write that in your letter? That you might be late?”
“Yeah, but it’s been hours.” Tears welled in her eyes. She spoke while holding them back. “I lost my schedule and didn’t ask the conductor and I took the wrong train and then I had to go all the way back-”
“It’s okay,” West said, holding her close. “You’re here now, right? We still have some time together.”
She sighed, West being a relief she didn’t think she’d get. She took his hand, and together they left the train terminal, their steps in sync down the snow-covered roads. In the back of her mind, she knew their time would soon be over. She would move far away and their spark would fade.
For now, the moment, and him, were both hers.
Even with her body trembling and heart fluttering, it didn’t take long for them to fall back into their old jokes, talking just how they did in the past with their offbeat, curious exchanges. How she missed it.
They walked to a bridge that overlooked a frozen canal, moonlight reflecting down on the ice. Powdery snow floated around them, turning her knitted cap into a white hood. She rested her head against his shoulder.
“The snowfall,” she breathed out a cloud of chilled air, “it’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“It falls at up to two meters per second. Did you know that?”
Zhu shook her head. In the right moment, it can feel like an eternity, she thought.
“It’s like the distance between us,” West said. “We might start together, but we drift apart in our separate ways.”
“But we’ll be together someday, won’t we?”
Tears dripped from her eyes. An eternity passed by too quickly. The wind had slowed down, and she could hear each of his breaths.
“Someday, Zhu, we’ll be together.”
As if it were the most natural thing, she turned to him. She stepped closer, leaned in, and closed her eyes halfway.
The two kissed in the moonlit snowfall.
- - -
Her phone rang in the office and snapped her out of the memory. She redirected the call and went back to watching the snowfall. Even after seeing it a hundred times, she still thought of him first.
She never did see him again.
The last time she checked his Facebook, he'd found a woman to settle down with.
He looked happy. Could she ask for more?
She could only hope that West—wherever he was—would sometimes look at the snowfall and think of her, too.
It’s beautiful, isn’t it?