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East Asian Sad Fiction

Crossroads

The window that I had sometimes looked out of for years, while constantly dreaming of a life beyond the hill our apartment stood on, faced a crossroads.

Before today, it never held any special significance for me—well, not in the way Mom saw it. But today, I thought I saw a shade of what Mom had found mesmerizing about the crossroads when she used to stare out of the window for hours and hours, and I, in turn, stared at her.

Mom saw in the crossroads a microcosm of life.

She thought that she could see lives overlapping and intersecting, or intermingling like the thread-like tributaries of a river joining together and then diverging once more. She also believed that she could see time when it surged and overflowed with floods of people gathering every New Year’s Eve, as well as when time grinded to a paralyzing halt as Covid-19 hit and brought about a drought of not just trains and vehicles, but people and their emotions too. In her lifetime, she had watched over the convergence of roads as it transformed from a roundabout to a box junction to the current scramble crossing, as if marking the evolution of the once-sleepy industrial town that Dad had chosen to root both his business and our family in, to the newly developed commercial space that it is today, where sky-high residences and monolithic malls now overshadowed our outdated, walk-up apartment building.

Yet I was never able to see what Mom said she saw in the crossroads.

To me, it was ordinary.

It was no Times Square. Or Oxford Circus. Or Shibuya Crossing, where romantic dalliances occasionally bloomed but ultimately perished especially in movies—or only in Lost in Translation, really. And reminded me of things I lost and obsessions I harbored, what with having to watch my favorite music and bookstore, Borders, set up shop, expand and put up its shutters within a decade. And my coffee addiction worsening over the years, which grew together with the first Starbucks, and then flourished along with Costa Coffee, Gloria Jean’s, Dunkin’, and finally, Starbucks again—I mean, whether it was some Halloween Special or Christmas Blend on limited offer, this caffeine reprobate was sure to be there.

Once, when I was eight, I had even witnessed a fatal traffic accident.

While I was spooked, shocked out of my skin by the stupendously loud sound of cars crashing like dynamite, and metal screeching against metal, Mom had scrutinized the entire scene before us with her usual stillness. Even tragedies are part and parcel of life, Aki, she had explained to me when I shared with her my fears, my nightmares of the accident. They go hand in hand with everything else that we see around us.

However, for years after that, I found it too distressing to accompany Mom as she did her reading or crocheting or daydreaming in her window seat. So, it was almost a decade later that Mom finally asked: “Why don’t you sit beside me, Aki? We can play our counting game just like old times—I can count the red cars passing through the intersection, and you can count the white ones. What do you say?”

“I think I’m too old for counting games, Mom.”

“Oh, you’re all grown up now, aren’t you?” Mom had replied then with a smile as she glanced at me packing my stuff into boxes for living out the rest of my life in student dormitories and rental apartments, just not here, just not with Mom. It didn’t help that at that time just before I moved out, Dad had died, and Mom had become increasingly clingy. “But you’ll come home once in a while, won’t you?”

“I’ll be busy at college, Mom,” I had said, avoiding her gentle, warm chocolate eyes. It was selfish and unreasonable of me, I know—I knew that—but I couldn’t help it that it was Mom’s ever-cloying forbearance towards me, and anything and everything that I did or said, that caused me to shrink away from her. I never understood why Mom could stay so passive and detached, cooping herself up inside the house, inside her seat, while the rest of the world struggled and fought back again the ravages of time—while I too grappled with the rapidly changing times around us. Mom had always been a housewife, and took care of Dad and me, and the house, first. With Dad, and now me, going going gone, why couldn’t she wrestle out of the confines of her familially defined responsibilities? Squirm out of the socially prescribed expectations she now imposed on herself to take care of me, cook for me, love… me. We were opposites, after all. Mom had a stable, inert existence and epitomized the calm in the eye of a storm, the balm you would smear on a burn blister after accidentally scalding yourself with a hot iron. Me? I was the flagrant orb of contradictory thoughts and emotions that threatened to burn her, erupting with half-truths and spewing out lies to get Mom to care less, but she only cared for me more. “You know, Mom, I’m planning to take up all the summer modules and exchange programs since I’m hoping to continue with my studies right after college.”

It was a ploy, an excuse, and Mom saw through it, but still she said: “I see. You’ll be busy.”

“Yes, very busy, Mom.”

“I understand, Aki.”

After this, Mom started to smile again, humming as she usually did as she looked out the window and rested her gaze on the crossing.

In fact, for a fleeting moment, I swear I thought I had seen why the crossing was such a comfort to her. Compared to Dad who was always tending to his business, and me, who was always busy with school and after-school activities with my friends, it was always… present. Sure, it had adapted and evolved often with the shifting needs and wants of the people and vehicles around it, but it… stayed. At a distance, yet accessible. Brimming with life, yet remote to her, like the fatal accident she felt nothing for but saw everything true about life in it.

In my last phone call to Mom, almost a year ago, I must have suspected that she was ill but chose to ignore it. “Is there anything else that I can help you with before I go?”

“No, nothing else, Aki. It’s just that…” Mom hesitated.

“What is it?” I asked, sounding more acerbic than I thought I sounded in my head.

“No, nothing, Aki.”

“Oh?”

“Oh yes, nothing to worry about. You know I’ve become quite the independent woman since your father passed, and it’s been years since you last visited.”

“I meant to visit last Christmas, Mom, but work somehow…”

“Oh, I didn’t mean it in that at all,” replied Mom, her cheeriness a façade as much as my concern was. I could imagine her sitting as still as a painting inside her window seat, the mild rays of the sun angled off the rooftop of the mall opposite the crossing barely lighting up the room or caressing the top of her head of pure carbon black, denying the pressing passage of time around her and resisting the surging flow of her years. “But please don’t worry about me, Aki.”

“It’s not that, Mom. It’s just… You’ll tell me, won’t you, if it’s something…?”

“Well, it’s hardly anything, Aki. It’s just that…”

“It’s just that…?”

“It’s just that I’ve been wondering if I’ve been smelling burnt toast.”

Today, I knew I shouldn’t have laughed when Mom said that, but I did, and I could no longer take it back. I had even told her that she had said the same thing when the Miller-Sato family moved in and became her new neighbors. They must really like their Western breakfast, I had said. Toasted bread with unsalted butter and strawberry jam, or stuffed omelets with honey-glazed griddlecakes, I had further supplemented, teasing Mom for her perpetual preference for the typical Japanese breakfast of a bowl of rice with salted salmon, egg, miso soup and seaweed.

“You’re being overly sensitive, Mom. Perhaps you’d like to ask the Miller-Satos if they would join you for breakfast instead.”

Mom had laughed with me then, probably relieved by my ignorant sum-up of what was happening to her senses, to her mind, and for months, Mom must have continued to echo my words in her head. Meanwhile, a seemingly innocuous seed had begun to sprout in her brain, gradually expanding and eventually colonizing her mind like a fattened leech or an emboldened parasite until… until…

It was too late.

When I returned to the house Mom had died in, and I had lived my youth out, it was inundated once again with boxes.

Mom’s relatives had tried to pack the life she had left behind into the boxes, but too many of her crochets remained and were left laid out all over the window seat in a natural array of cochineal reds and oranges, and lazuline blue. Beyond them, Mom’s motionless frame sat poised and dignified, or at least, as it was immortalized in my eyes, along with an unfettered view of the crossing still full of life and flooded with traffic.

Climbing into the window seat at last, I instantly caught sight of the traffic stopping for the hundreds of people cutting across and passing through the intersection in every way possible, before they too stopped, and vehicles started moving seamlessly from one lane to another, without having to worry about the lane beside it, or in front of it, or adjacent to it at all. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long for the vehicles to be exchanged for people again, taking turns in an ever-flowing motion of time and life, and memory—the kind of memory I was now clinging to like the refrain of a song I would always remember, but would never be able to quite place the words or tune or artist, just as with Mom.

August 12, 2021 15:31

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4 comments

Jared Hammer
15:07 Aug 19, 2021

This is both sad and warm at the same time. You did a great job.

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Sofia M
08:30 Aug 22, 2021

Thanks so much!

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10:57 Aug 19, 2021

I thought this was a really detailed and beautiful story! I felt connected with the main character, and was honestly a little sad at the end. I wonder if it might be even more effective if there were more lines throughout tying into Aki's present day as she goes through her mother's things, perhaps hinting to the reader that something's happened without giving it away until the end. This way, there'd be more action within the story in addition to the flashbacks, memories, and train of thought. That's completely optional, though! I still re...

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Sofia M
08:30 Aug 22, 2021

Thank you for the feedback! Can definitely see how Aki's present day would be an interesting perspective to explore!

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