It was going to be a good day. It had to.
Lily knew the perfect way to start the day: cinnamon sugar doughnuts and coffee. When she got to the cafe, though, the barista was locking the doors.
“Are you closed already?” she asked.
The barista shook his head. “Something with the plumbing. They have to shut off the water.”
“Oh…” she trailed off.
She checked her watch. Is there another cafe nearby? Or a bakery? There’s a place on Randolph Street - no, that’s a Starbucks…they don’t have the right doughnuts. Do I have time to look?
She shook her head. No, I’ll be late for work. She turned around and headed to the office, feeling her stomach growl. Maybe I’ll get some coffee from the break room…
For lunch, she grabbed a salad from the shop across the street, and decided to pop into the convenience store next door for dessert. Scanning the rows and rows of candy near the checkout, she smiled when she found the peanut butter cups…only to realize the box was empty.
“You’re out of peanut butter cups?” she asked the cashier.
The cashier shrugged.
What would Mei do? Lily wondered as she retreated back to the office. If she couldn’t get a peanut butter cup…she would get a bubble tea.
Determined to get her treat, Lily took a detour on her way home from work. She found the small bubble tea shop and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw that it was still open.
She stepped out of the shop with her milk tea, smiling as she rattled the ice and tapioca pearls in the cup. She took a big sip, sucking up a few pearls when…
She stopped in her tracks and screwed up her face. Instead of the chewy but firm texture she expected, the tapioca pearls were mushy and slimy in her mouth. She spotted a nearby trash can and spat them out.
Should I get a refund? She looked at the bubble tea shop behind her.
Mei wouldn’t ask for a refund. It’s a small shop. She’d say that these things happen, and move on with her day.
With a sigh, she tossed the milk tea into the trash too.
She looked up at the street signs, trying to regain her bearings. What street am I on again?
Wait - when did the sky get so dark?
As if in response, a fat raindrop plopped on her forehead.
Lily groaned as she put her purse over her head and ran home, the rain coming down harder and harder around her. She stumbled through her front door, sopping wet, and sank to her knees.
How would Mei cheer herself up? Lily peeled off her wet clothes and reached for her sweats. She would watch a cozy movie…and order something special for dinner!
She curled up on the couch and placed an order for tonkatsu and curry. Satisfied, she set down her phone and opened Netflix on her TV. If there was any movie that she was going to watch today, it was Kiki’s Delivery Service. Only….
Wait, that’s weird. They’re only showing the English dub.
Frowning, Lily checked the settings, but the original version wasn’t there.
Maybe if I try the Japanese title….? But that didn’t yield any results.
Lily felt the strength leave her body. She slumped over on the couch, her cheek pressed into the couch cushion, her chest feeling like it had been hollowed out.
I give up. I fucking give up.
She squeezed her eyes shut and felt the numbness thaw into hopelessness. A weight was on her chest, on her arms and her legs, on her throat. She felt the full defeat of the day pressing her into the couch.
She opened her eyes, and her gaze settled on the mug sitting next to her TV. It was originally a white coffee cup, faded and scratched over the years. Now, though, there were gold streaks running through the mug, filling the cracks where it had once been broken.
Lily forced herself up, still looking at the mug. It caught the light coming from the TV, and the gold patterns gleamed with an ethereal glow, like it was almost sentient. Like it was almost alive.
She grabbed her phone. There was only one person who she wanted to talk to.
Hi Mei. It’s your birthday - thirty years old today…time really does fly, huh?
She hit Send and continued typing:
As another year passes, I have been thinking about the past more and more. I’ve realized that the things I miss are the strangest ones.
Do you remember when we had quantum mechanics at eight-thirty? (In the morning! Were they crazy? Did they hate us?) I don’t remember the lectures or what we learned (we learned stuff, right?) but I remember that both of us would stumble out of class and head to the bookstore cafe. We’d get hot, fresh doughnuts (cinnamon sugar, because they were the cheapest and we were so, so broke) and we’d sort of sit there, dumbfounded, trying to process what the hell just happened.
Is it weird that that’s the moment I miss the most? Not feeling confused or panicked, but that momentary break, that breath with you. For a moment, we were in our own bubble universe - just each other, the warmth of our coffee, the smell of cinnamon sugar, and the feeling that we weren’t alone. We had each other, and that was enough to break through the daze.
She hit Send after every paragraph, ignoring the exclamation points that bloomed next to each message.
Do you remember doing our problem sets in the library? We’d have our books open and lecture notes all over the table, trying to solve whatever crazy equations they threw our way. I’d look away for just a second, and when I looked back, there would be a peanut butter cup on my homework. You always had an infinite supply of peanut butter cups and you were always giving them away - how did you never run out?
I don’t miss doing homework, but I miss the moments that I would look up to find a peanut butter cup meant just for me. I miss how you always acted so surprised too, as if magically appeared there and you had no idea how it happened….
We couldn’t pass a chalkboard without you drawing a cat on it. We couldn’t pass a bubble tea stand without you getting a drink. We couldn’t pass a dog without you following the owner to ask their name. I don’t want to admit that these things could annoy me, but I miss that. I could get frustrated at how easily distracted you were, but now I miss watching you chase joy and savor those moments.
I tried watching your favorite movie today, but Netflix only had the English dub. I think one of the only times I actually saw you get mad was when you were telling me about the differences between the two versions. In the Japanese version, Kiki loses the ability to talk to her cat, and that’s okay. I remember how you said that it meant that she was growing up, and that growing up is bittersweet. There are some things that you leave behind, but that’s necessary to grow. In the very end of the English dub, though, Kiki can understand her cat again. You said it completely erased the meaning of the original version. It ‘Disney-fied’ the ending.
A ping made Lily jump. She tapped the notification on her screen and saw that the restaurant had canceled her order.
She snorted, then burst out laughing. She wasn’t entirely sure if she found the situation funny, exactly, but at that moment, that was almost besides the point. She felt herself shaking, gasping for air, releasing whatever had been wadded up and lodged inside her.
Mei would have thought this was hilarious, she thought, and continued to write:
I’ll tell you a secret: I really wanted Kiki to be able to understand her cat in the end, but I also understand why she shouldn’t.
It’s one thing for me to say that growth requires change, and another for me to live it. There is change that is hard but good, or at least necessary, like moving for college or for a job. Like not understanding your cat anymore because you are leaving childhood. There is also change that is hard with no good in it. Change that is unnecessary. I don’t understand what I’m supposed to learn from change like that.
Things feel so unreal. Today, you would have been thirty. You would have been thirty! That feels too old and too young at the same time. How could any of my friends be old enough to turn thirty? How could any of my friends not make it to thirty?
I miss you, Mei. So much. I miss that mischievous look in your eyes when you’d spot a chalkboard, a split second before you’d dash off to draw a cat. I miss the face you’d make as you sucked up tapioca pearls and how pleased you looked chewing on them. I miss the way you’d sigh when you’d open the box of fresh doughnuts, like everything would be okay.
I am trying to be strong, but it’s hard to be strong when I don’t feel solid.
The messages were stacked on top of each other, a solid field of blue with exclamation points running down the side. The messages weren’t delivered. They’d never be delivered or read.
I remember when you dropped a mug and fixed it with kintsugi. I remember how you mixed gold dust with glue and carefully painted it on the cracks, pressing the broken pieces together until the mug was whole again. I told you that I didn’t understand why you didn’t just buy a new mug. What I didn’t tell you was that I didn’t like how the gold highlighted where the mug had been broken.
You said that breakage and repair isn’t something to hide or be ashamed of, that it’s part of an object’s life. That it’s a part of our lives, too. I know my pain isn’t something to be ashamed of, and I’m not ashamed, but it’s going to take a lot more than gold dust to patch me up.
Lily ran her thumb down the edge of her phone. Her messages overwhelmed the screen, and as she scrolled up, the screen was only filled with her blue paragraphs. It had been a long time since Mei had written back.
She looked at the mug again, her eyes tracing the gold running through the ceramic. Instead of sitting in a landfill, it was on her TV stand. Instead of staying broken, it was whole and decorated. This mug, this unremarkable mug, defied all logic - and it was still here because of Mei.
She wiped her eyes and typed:
I will keep trying, though. For the both of us, I’ll keep trying.
Love You Always,
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I like the economy of emotion that you use here. It's just enough before it starts to feel overwrought. Nice job.
Hey Olivia! This was a breath taking and well deserved short list! I loved the way you gave us little breadcrumbs helping us understand this story is ultimately about grief. I loved this title and I thought it was a beautiful piece. Nice work!
"Today, you would have been thirty."...says it all. Sad but uplifting at the same time. Well done, and congratulations. -:) RG
This is so sweet. I loved the relationship and it inspired so many questions in my mind about what happened, how the loss occurred.
Interesting experiment of a story in a story, in a story, about Kiki's Delivery Service. The descriptions of the mushy bubble tea and disappointments at the beginning were very vivid. 'Kintsugi' appeared in a story a few months ago, and had to give this a read to see how you incorporated it. The nostalgia for earlier happier times came through really well.