Teens & Young Adult Asian American Friendship

This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

Title inspired by Red Band, 1955, an contemporary art piece by Mark Rothko.


Alex’s mental health day starts with his half-awake march to the shared bathroom.

The apartment he shares with two other members of his dance club is unusually quiet, and he attributes that to the fact that everyone else is at the dance practice. It’s always hard to accommodate three young adults’ schedule of part-time jobs, dance practice, and occasional fun times, and although he deems his roommates as the best people ever to share an apartment with, Alex needs some alone time to himself.

Especially after the panic attack at the dance studio last night, after Cris – their strong, reliable dance team leader – threatened to call an ambulance on him (as if any of them could actually afford that) if he refused to take a much-needed day off.

He wanders to the bathroom door, silently cursing at whoever (probably Ashley; Leo is not even half as clumsy) leaving the light on after their last use, and pushes it wide open before realizing someone was already in there.

(It’s not his fault, right? The door wasn’t locked and he didn’t expect anyone else home at this particular moment.)

“What… is happening here?”

Alex asks tentatively, throwing the half-formed question towards his roommates – who are supposedly at the dance studio – occupying the cramped space, with Ashley frantically digging inside the drawer for their first-aid kit, and Leo calmly taking off his light-colored joggers with coffee stain covering the entire crotch part.

“Would you mind locking the door?” Leo asks, rolling up the ends of his boxers with zero facial expression. “Cris might come back early to check on us. Our bathroom can’t handle another person.”

Alex followed his command without a second thought. He finds himself an empty space near the tub, and sits down to join the other two dancers on the ground, watching Ashley passing over a couple packaged cleansing wipes with shaky hands to Leo, whose thighs were bleeding out in the form of numerous uniform, red lines.

Horizontal; uniform. Clean on the edge; almost at equal depths and equal distances away from one another. Distantly looking like barcodes, or staff as in musical notations.

(Red lines carved on Leo’s pale, strong thighs.)

“I noticed that when we first started the practice…” Ashley said, fingers playing with a strand of his long, dark hair nervously. “I thought it was just some old stain, but it became more and more obvious over time so I –”

“So he ‘accidentally’ dumped an entire iced americano on my crotch.”

Leo finishes that sentence, sounding unaffected as if he isn’t the one cleaning up the blood streaming down his leg. 

Alex’s almost in awe of Ashley’s quick response in doing that, to cover up the blood stain, and give them a chance to take care of those cuts without attracting unnecessary attention from the rest of their dance team. He remembers seeing some old, questionable scars on Ashley’s slim body, when they had to change clothes quickly at intermissions for their street busking and stage performances, and he guessed those scars might be part of the reason for Ashley to react in the first place.


He honestly doesn’t know Leo too well, even after the older dancer joined the group for a whole year straight. Leo always seems to be on the move, hustling between his ten part-times and dance practice, and even Ashley – who always cares enough to keep track of everyone’s schedule – doesn’t know where Leo could be from time to time. Leo barely talks about himself, his family, or his past in general; the most he has ever mentioned are the three cats he rescued and grew up with, two ginger and one tabby, as if they were the only thing that really matters in Leo’s life.

All of the members of their dance team are like that, more or less. Second generation immigrants of East Asian origins, given generic English names under the hopes of “blending in the American culture”, asked “where are you actually from” since childhood, barely able to speak their own heritage languages. Some, like Cris, like Ashley, have struggled a lot with the basic idea of living, judging from those stitch marks and surgical scars; some, like Alex himself, are deemed disappointments to their families for not pursuing any respectable career and wasting their lives on “purposeless things” like music and dancing…

Some, like Leo sitting right in front of him right now, never openly bring up their own issues; an assumption or guess would be the closest alternative.

(Closest. Definitely not the best.)

And Alex feels like a horrible friend for not knowing (or not knowing any better like a clueless child regardless of his actual age).

In this suffocating, overpowering silence, Alex just sits there, watching Ashley carefully pick out some clean gauze and butterfly strips from the first aid kit, watching Leo clean up his wounds in an unsettlingly skillful way as if he had done it a million times.

It surprises him that Ashely hasn’t said anything.

The presence of Ashley was a pain in the ass for him for the first few months; they fought from day to night until both broke down and cried in each other’s arms, inseparable for the rest of their lives together. It took him a long time to understand how Cris, who’s always been extremely picky with people he likes, insisted on bringing Ashely into their group after only a few interactions, because Ashley is that different, because Ashley can feel things in such width and depth that Alex himself cannot even imagine.

Though Alex isn’t half as empathetic as Ashley is, he isn’t stupid; he comprehends the hidden meaning of these bleeding cuts as well as everyone present. In his head, there’s a loud, annoying voice screaming why over and over again, trying to stir up his innate curiosity and ruin the moment of silent peace in their shared apartment. And frankly, he wants to ask why, wants to tell his friend to stop doing this to himself – to stop suffering, yet he’s (finally) mature enough to understand that that question doesn’t mean anything when the damage is already done.

Because knowing why won’t change anything; knowing why won’t heal a man who is desperately hurting himself in this tortuous way; knowing why won’t make these organized, man-made barcodes leave their friend’s pale skin.

If Ashley – the epitome of the definition of an empath – decides to remain silent, maybe he should keep his mouth shut tight as well.

As soon as Leo finishes taking care of his re-opened cuts on the upper thigh region, the older dancer picks up his stance and leaves the bathroom in a hurry. Alex slowly stands up, and gives a hand to help Ashley get up as well. The long-haired dancer holds onto his hand, still shaking a little from the adrenaline rush and this dreadful, stressful situation.

“Maybe we all deserve a mental day.” Alex announces, out of the blue, while walking to the living room and joining his roommates there on the sofa.

Ashley doesn’t dare to say anything; he probably has used up all his courage for that nice save of coffee dumping, and the afterthought of “what has happened” seems to take a heavy toll on this young dancer’s sensitive mentality.

“Maybe we do.”

It’s Leo’s calm, unaffected voice that resonates with him. Alex looks up, and meets the older dancer right in the eye, who’s staring at him with a feline-looking head-tilt to one side. He wonders if Leo’s trying to read something out of it or recognizing the lack of something out of it.

He would never call the police on Leo, that’s for sure; Cris has once joked about him being involuntarily thrown into a psych ward for self-harm, and Alex learned the lesson from there. He would never force his friend to open up about anything either, unless Leo himself is willing to bring it up in the first place.

(What’s even here to offer? What on earth can comfort a young man who’s struggling so hard just to find a way to continue living?)

Before he allows the voice in his head calling him a “useless idiot” again, Alex finds himself extending his arms on both sides, bringing Ashley and Leo closer into a warm hug, letting the two use his shoulder as a solid support.

There’s still some time to kill before Cris comes back from the practice and checks on all of them. So they cuddle up together in a small pile, on the sofa that barely holds up the weight of three boys. The warmth coming from Ashley and Leo gives Alex a strong, distinct feeling of accompaniment, as if his life is finally complete at this particular moment.

“Thank you, Ash.” He hears Leo whisper. “Thank you, Al.”

Along with the sleepiness creeping up in the back of his head, Alex hopes that none of them will ever be alone again.

August 30, 2022 04:31

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