The moment she leaps from the steps—when the bus door glides open with a sigh—is the moment she realizes the absence of the familiar weight of her glasses resting upon the bridge of her nose.
Sky-blue like the ribbon in her hair, plastic-rimmed, rubber-ended. Compressed-lenses, Lightweight, flexible, and now—gone.
Panic forces her to be unnaturally placid.
The only sign of distress shows in the uncomfortable shuffling of her feet, the head swaying left and right, up and down, scavenging for scraps of clues—for any hint of the same sky blue. Ducking under shrubs and the body of the bus, she glances in her backpack, turns back to the bus, then looks again, then again, and again into the backpack. She rummages around in her pockets—in both sets of her pockets, the ones on her uniform and the ones on her PE-wear.
Panic escalates to terror.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Where are they where are they where are they wherearethey wherearethey
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She squints. She furrows her tiny brows. She pulls at her ponytail, she bites her lip, she rummages through her backpack again. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
She reaches out, eyes closed—as if telekinesis had been a power she’d possessed—and reaches out with her thin, sticklike arms, painting the glasses in her mind with a shaky but precise hand. As if she’d be able to summon them to her by doing so. She imagines a box, a lock—opening it, and
before she can confirm her theory, a sharp All 6K over here. Homeroom 6K, Sixth K come here! rings throughout the courtyard alongside 6H, 6H’s over here, and 6-something else. She bites down hard on the tears beginning to fall, recites a shabby excuse—something about the wind and dust in her eyes—in her mind, just to be sure, and follows the crowd, eyes still wandering, still searching.
Breathe—she can’t breathe.
She reaches out.
Jerking away from her cold, unnaturally clammy touch, the teacher—a green whistle hanging from his neck, his green-and-white windbreaker rustling in the breeze, forces a smile—an admirable attempt, really—and leans down towards her, hands on his knees.
What do you need, he says in a thick accent, with the same smile still grafted onto his face.
A sob erupts from her, ugly and distasteful, and he flinches in surprise.
Breathe, she tells herself. Breathe.
Mr.——I ca— Ic—n’t fin—d my glas—glasse—s. She manages to get out.
She sees his shoulders relax, his mouth turning upwards, and he pivots to gesture to the bus driver, caught smoking against a tree. A hand cupped at his mouth, the teacher calls out to him in Chinese, something about glasses—blue, he says, like the sky. Small. Hers.
A ray of hope. She warms, almost as if his words have morphed into sunshine creeping towards her, wrapping around her like a luminous blanket. As if a section of the—cumulonimbus—that’s what she learned in school; as if a section of the cumulonimbus clouds had parted at his words, just for her, letting sunshine peek through. Shining upon her despite the evident, oncoming storm. Years later, she’ll come to learn that the clouds that day were, in fact, not cumulonimbus, but nevertheless she’ll smile at the memory and the way the name rolls off her tongue—maybe grimace, a little—and move on. But for now, as of the moment, the clouds are cumulonimbus clouds in her own little world.
Smiling, he turns back to her. Her heart thumps—a rabbit, breathlessly leaping through endless emerald fields. Her eyes widen, her mouth opens in a gasp-grin, and—
Years later, this moment will continue to puzzle the teacher—the shaking, the sweat, how white she’d turned. The way she quite literally froze at his response before spasming—near convulsing, in tears.
They’re plastic-rimmed glasses, he’ll think. Glasses.
What had been behind the horror he’d witnessed on an 11-year-old’s face?
Kids these days—he’ll think with a shake of his head—too anxious, too careful. Make too much a big deal out of nothing.
Like every other person, he’ll assume and accuse and justify—as in his mind, he may not know most—but he knows best. As is the way people are. Nobody can truly understand the extent of another’s mind.
His fault will not be in the brushing away of significance, but in his unwillingness to take his position as a learner—the way we all are, forever. His fault will be in his unwillingness to learn, to naturally assume the position of someone who doesn’t know everything. His fault will be in placing the fault in her, unknowingly.
His fault will be in being human.
He’ll watch as she turns and leaves, still shaking slightly—silver lining her eyes, and shake his head.
It will not haunt him continuously—only occasionally.Notable, but unimportant.
That is what her life, what her existence, will be to him.
But to her, it will be going home to inimical silence. It will be the tears of an 11-year old girl whose entire life, whose entire sense of purpose—the woman—is screaming at her, tearing at her, gnawing at her. It will be her reluctance to go home, her desperation to delay the act as much as possible. It will be watching nothing but her own tears, falling, falling—a perfect metaphor for the way she will be feeling. It will be running from claw marks, from screaming, from the way the woman’s eyes burn like wildfire, the tone in which she’d said those words, just three—
you are worthless.
Or, If you don’t find them don’t you dare bother coming home, or
I wish I’d never had you.
It will be one of the many events that will come to instill the innate caution, the overflowing apologies, the loneliness, the fear—inside her. Things that will follow her for years and years and years and years to come—haunt her, like an apparition latching itself onto a human host. Sucking, hungry for any lick of humanity.
Sitting on the edge of a tiny pond, she’ll stare at the slippers she’d managed to pull on before the woman had slammed the door in her face hard enough to rattle the metal frame—at the mud now coating their edges, and wonder numbly if she’d get punished for that as well.
And that night, when she curls up into her sheets, shuddering from the iciness radiating off of the woman—off of her mother, she bites her lip to keep the tears from falling—the way she always does.
That night, when she hears the creak of the bedroom door and the faint yellow glow from the hall seeps into the room—into her soul, she lets out a little peep of delight and bounds into open arms. Strong and thick with a faint tinge of cologne hovering over the unshakably familiar stench of beer, the man with the gray in his hair opens them wide, welcoming her as she sinks into his looming figure.
Hey princess, he mumbles as he sweeps her into his arms.
What does the birthday girl want? He says, tossing her into the air as if she weighs no more than a plastic bag. What does she want? He says again.
This, she thinks. Anything—she’d do anything if it meant this, every day. No matter the time, no matter the broken promises, the shattered happily-ever-afters—if it meant he’d come back home, come to her, she’d gladly take it. Scramble for the remaining pieces, for the scattered crumbs of his attention.
And so when he asks again—what does the birthday girl want? She only giggles and says nothing, daddy.
Sing me the song. Just sing me the song.
She buries herself into the small space between his neck and shoulder, letting the weight of his arms pull her down—anchor her. She feels the scratch of his unshaven stubble against the softness of her own cheek—the warmth of his. With a tiny finger, she traces the redness of his nose—a result of alcohol—ignoring the stinging pain that comes from the realization that he won’t remember this the next day. She traces the redness of his cheeks, the fluttering of his lashes, and giggles again as he swings her up into sitting position, her legs hanging off his shoulders, encircling his neck.
And then he begins to sing, big and soft and rumbly, swaying slightly—
Buzz buzz buzz buzz pepper dragonflies, flying in the sky…
After a little while, she joins in, her youthful soprano quietly blending into his heavy baritone.
And this moment—this one small scene, will forever engrave itself into her mind, for no special reason. It will have been like any other day—the endless waiting, the calls, the hours in front of the landline, the I’ll be home in thirty minutes’ that never turn out to be true, the stumbling in of a drunk man at 3AM in the morning after promises of 9PM. It will have been like any other day, in the shouting, the blood, the bruises, the tears, the singing, the threats.
But for whatever reason—perhaps the seemingly insignificant yet very significant date, perhaps the brutality of the woman’s words, the warmth the man had provided—this day will score itself into her mind henceforth and forever.
And that is just the way things are.