BY JESSICA LI
Livingston High School, '16
2016 Adroit Prize for Prose: Honorable Mention
Sam drove her car over a squirrel yesterday. She didn’t know it at first – a small bump, a minuscule shift in her seat. She stopped by a gas station and only smelled the blood after, something thick on her tires. The first thing she wanted to clean off in a sea of hometown blues in her own hometown.
She brought back cassette tapes, a bucket hat, miscellaneous papers from finals week, a souvenir for each of her parents (one cheap keychain each), ramen meatloaf from the dining hall to make fun of with her parents (white people really try to make anything work). She brought back more books in her messenger bag and more scoliosis in her back. More bags, on her face and otherwise, little lines etched into the fabric of her skin. She brought back sighs pressed into her palms, harder calluses, something thicker under her membrane. Something seeped through.
Her mother cared too much, her father too little. Her mother talked too much and cooked too much and walked with her heels pressed into the ground, rooting and uprooting. Her father hid behind his newspaper, the characters swimming in a pool of his shadow. Her mother a nearby sun, her father a galaxy million miles away.
They cooked dumplings together, for the first time in months. They asked her a lot of questions. One after another, like successive gunshots groping for targets in the air: how’syourclasseshowisyourroomatedoyouhaveaboyfriendareyougettingstraightAs. She didn’t know how to answer any of them, so she told them about the squirrel.
But there was also the showerhead falling through the floor. And a bird flying through her Introduction to Psychology lecture. And eating ramen with a toothpick when she forgot to buy forks. And walking alone through a park five miles from her quad and feeling like a ghost. And a constant disquiet, an overlap of motion and stillness, disconnecting the joints of her knuckles, calves; her figurative mind from her literal one.
After dinner, she lit a candle for her sister and went to bed.
The bird sang a few notes while it flew over her professor’s head, rustling papers, a white belly floating over the masses. Sam An, it seemed to chirp, in a limbo of dreams too dense, too thick, to be real. Get up.
Sam didn’t know what to do when she got home, so she applied for the first job she saw and took the offer when they gave it to her: Hana, the greasy hibachi restaurant off Route 10, five minutes away from her house. The owner, Mrs. Won, spoke in sharp, biting tones, her English short and taut—nine an hour, cash only, under the table. Don’t be late. She threw her a black, collared shirt, showed her how to pick up the phone and enter credit card numbers into the credit card machine, and let her work for two hours. She was paid in eight sushi rolls her first trial day and left feeling like she accomplished something. It was mind-numbing, effortless work.
She came nearly every weekday, five to seven or eight to ten in the evening, greeting people, listening to phone orders, waiting on tables and turning on the stove for the chef to fire up the food in front of the customers, a special extra duty of a hibachi restaurant worker. Every time she forgot to turn on the stove, Mrs. Won threatened to dock her pay. The other girls at the cash register would snicker and whisper they were barely making minimum wage anyway.
Mostly high school students and college students on summer break worked at Hana. Gaggles of sophomore girls worked the tables on Friday nights, slapping on lip-gloss and texting like their thumbs were on fire. They did their hair up messy and wore heels too tall, giggling every time they tripped over the flowery carpeting. Sam thought they were too loud in the back of the kitchen and they flirted too much with the busboys but she wanted to transplant herself into one of them for just a night, how it felt to be unscarred and gloriously careless. Her soul felt old when she watched Kelly Liang, fifteen, working on her Barron’s SAT Math book under the counter and sneaking bites of a Snickers bar when Mrs. Won wasn’t looking. They only looked forward to the white envelope waiting at the end of the week.
Two other college students worked the same shifts as her. Jon Wu took the company car and drove out to make deliveries, hauling white plastic bags of sushi boxes and udon, the oils seeping out the bottom. He was short and muscular, wore a natural cowlick in his hair, and lapped up attention like he was the restaurant dog, eager for a high-five or a pass from a high school girl. Lisa Ng was a waitress, the girl in her AP Lit class in senior year who always chewed Orbit gum and wouldn’t give anyone else a piece. She had cut her long, dark hair into a pixie cut and dyed it a dark red. Sam secretly thought she looked really cool, like an extra in a music video serving the main rapper gin in a sixties diner joint. She watched her sashay in and out of the kitchen, carrying plates of sashimi and tempura on both hands with such agility she wondered how long she’d really been working there.
“Why are you working here?” Lisa asked her one night when they were both sitting shoulder to shoulder behind the small counter, waiting for someone to come. The restaurant, usually rowdy and greasy with noise, was eerily quiet. “I thought you were going to get a fancy internship or something.” Like the rest of them.
“Real life experience beats an internship,” Sam said, her fingers folding and refolding a paper menu.
“That’s a good way of putting it,” she laughed, but quickly fell silent when Mrs. Won stepped out of the back room, eyes slanted in suspicion.
On a Saturday night, Sam fell asleep in her sister’s room and woke up to screaming.
“What are you doing, you stupid girl! Ben hai zi!” Her mother whacked her on the head with a radish, still wet and cold from the sink. “Get out!”
She tried to roll over and fall back asleep, her pillow deflecting the curses.
Soon, Liam Cho was hired as a waiter, a dashing Korean boy who just finished his sophomore year in college at an Ivy League. No one could remember which one, but everyone knew it was an Ivy League. Sam caught his eye and melted into the fat Japanese shogun painted on the plastic wall. This was the boy, she thought. This was the lanky older boy on the fencing team, with a little stud in his nose and the secret sensitivity in the back of his pocket, like he wrote poetry in his spare time and quoted Sylvia Plath. He grew his black hair out into a little ponytail and rolled up the sleeves of his restaurant-issued white button down, exposing one pulsing vein down the front of his forearm.
He was the new object of the high school gaggle. They crowded around him in after work, trying to get a whiff of his cologne, trying to touch his hair, shoulders, back.
“You look like a k-pop star,” a white girl once told him after he sat her down at a table. Her eyes were wide and excited, like she had just paid him a huge compliment. “Have you ever tried being one?”
Sam saw him imperceptibly twitch. “No,” he said politely, handing her a sticky menu. “I don’t think I’m cut out for it.”
Mrs. Won liked this new addition to the team, her face folding into a greedy smile every time Liam rushed out of the kitchen to fulfill an order. On a Friday night, she clapped her hands and announced that she would give out a free dinner for all the employees, to be eaten in thirty-minute shifts in the very back of the restaurant. Then back to work.
The college students grabbed their choice selections of sushi and crowded into the small room, a single light bulb washing the area in a faint white light. They ate together mostly in silence, like a group of little kids stuck at an Asian dinner party together, their parents heckling with each other late into the night until someone got too drunk and everyone had to go home.
“What are you guys studying?” Jon asked eagerly. He flicked his chopsticks up and pointed to Lisa. “How about you?”
“Pre-med,” she said curtly, automatically, like she was listing her name and birthday. Sam tried to stop her leg from shaking; she stuffed her mouth with tuna and wasabi and felt her eyes water. They went around the table like an AA meeting, introducing their majors and tracks like they were ailments they had to overcome.
“U-undecided,” she heard herself say, feeling sick. Everyone was surprised, but impressed.
“How did you talk your parents into that one?” Liam asked.
They all looked at her, emitting the same yellow, haggard glow. She felt the ball in her stomach deflate, just a little.
Later, it was through a friend she hadn’t spoken to for over nine months that she discovered her old math teacher had died. Old Mrs. Ibsen, the oldest teacher in the school, the woman who smelled like peppermint and whose bones creaked, the woman who taught Algebra II to both her and her sister. She found herself staring at the blue bubble, white Helvetica font coldly presenting her the news. “Hey Sam, this is really sad but I just wanted to let you know that… Mrs. Ibsen… funeral next week…”
She was their favorite teacher, but she loved Sam’s sister the most. Sam still remembered her tears when she found out about Lily. Lily, her perfect student, her exemplar, her little girl with the single dimple, body in a gorge, floating into another dimension, another time. Who drowned her? You mean she did that?
Sam and the other students who had Mrs. Ibsen cancelled their shifts and went to the funeral. She was in a dream, in a walk again far away from her quad, legs sifting through the thickness of a fog. Hovering in purgatory, her name on a waitlist somewhere and she hadn’t been accepted or denied. She wanted to be a ghost, because then she could ask questions, all the questions she wanted. Like how to die before an old teacher. How to break apart on impact. How to maintain the virtues of a good Chinese daughter. How to be a doctor when you don’t know how to save yourself. She wanted to look over the edge of the bridge and find all the answers, waiting for her like a suspended scantron sheet, holy, pure, right, if only she could just study them hard enough.
Jessica Li is a senior at Livingston High School and the editor of her school literary magazine. Her fiction and poetry have been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the Bennington College Young Writers Awards, the Eichner Awards for Young Poets, and the Adroit Prizes (2015, Editors' List), among others. In her free time, she enjoys playing the viola, the most underrated instrument of the orchestra and possibly of all time. In the fall, she plans to attend the University of Pennsylvania.