A December Saturday morning.
She’s already running late, but she sits up and pauses for a moment, looking at the sleeping figure across the room. Two hundred and some days of this familiar sight, the same floral duvet cover, come rain, shine, wind or snow.
She remembers their early interactions: slow and hesitant, giving and easy-going. She remembers a lamp left on, for the days when she comes back late. She remembers the look of bewilderment, mirroring her own, hearing the fire alarm at three in the morning. She remembers their mutual confessions as tea enthusiasts, their promise and aspiration to become coffee snobs, together. She remembers putting up a mood board of loved things like Wes Anderson and Kerouac and bird silhouettes and La trahison des images, and their quiet recognition of a shared spirit.
The corners of her mouth lift slightly.
The nerves and excitement that kept her up the night before returns, faint. She peers out through the crack of the closed blinds, one last look before she goes.
An unmarked, pristine canvas outside the window – the first of the year.
They told her she would get sick of it, the chill on the tip of her nose, the shaking of fingers after being exposed for too long, the bundling up of layers upon layers.
Yet, eighteen years of tropical climate has left room in her life for a change of scenery.
She doesn’t mind the snow. She takes comfort in its serenity, its transience.
Anyway, she’s a fan of turtlenecks.
She surveys her suitcase and mentally checks off necessary items, fingers gently tapping the table, eyes drifting to the clock.
Hokusai’s The Great Wave hangs on her wall,
A force of nature suspended in mid-air,
The split second before a break.
Like it, her body already in motion,
Mind adrift to another room where the wooden closets are painted white,
Where bags and hiking gear and summer wear and school uniforms stained with the scribbled signatures and cartoon drawings of old friends and memories
Adorn its insides.
She leaves her bed unmade, so the one still sleeping doesn’t get too lonely. She closes the door gently behind her;
she knows she’ll be back soon.
Snowflakes swirl around her, enveloping the body of this sleeping giant, this land. She trudges through the fresh snow, trying to calculate the time it will take to traverse the distance from one home to the other.
Car, train, plane, train.
The car heater hums.
She watches as the street lamps pass her by, the remnants of last night’s glow,
Her eyes follow the winding road down to the train station
from the college on top of the hill,
to another, more populated, busier and noisier street,
approximately thirteen thousand kilometers away.
She can picture that place, the one she knows so well. The one with double-decker buses decorated with banners advertising some brands in English and others in Chinese; the one where glass windows are raised fifty stories and a subway is referred to by another name; the one with old haunts.
That place where her mother has draped her and her sister’s baby photos above their shoe cupboard, and where their refrigerator is never without chocolate. That place is still a full day away.
Car, train, plane, train.
She puts the music on shuffle to the playlist with songs in her mother’s native tongue. She hears those tones and inflections and she pretends like she’s already there.
She loses herself in the songs from her childhood years. She discovers that she has with her the songs her mother often liked to play in their living room. She mouths the words to herself, rediscovering their charms and the memories associated, and the train ride flies by.
Sixteen-hour flight time, she hears the captain announce. It almost always feels longer, when thoughts and anticipation and discomfort keep sleep from coming.
The ding! of the “fasten your seatbelt” sign and the rumble of the plane wheels ground her in the moment, back pressed against the seat, amid strangers with one shared destination.
She holds onto the armrests, as her body tilts back with the gravity-defying momentum of this large mass, up through the air.
It’s a habit she can’t seem to shake, even after years of flying across oceans and countries, a quirk of this seasoned traveler.
The cityscape of a foreign land recedes into the distance and misty clouds fill the frame of the slightly rounded plane window. She wears a soft smile, satisfied that with each minute the distance between her and her destination grows smaller and smaller.
A world away.
The final stretch takes just twenty-four minutes, and the train doors open at its first and final stop, sending off and bringing home.
A familiar head of hair.
Jet black, short;
Framed perfectly around a circular face.
She reaches up instinctively to her freshly cut hair, an impulse decision, unwittingly inviting comparison and judgment.
Someone once lamented at its length, wondered uncomprehendingly why she would be willing to part with it.
Wasn’t it sad?
No, not particularly. She welcomes the resemblance, perhaps it might inspire her.
A little bit of her, whenever she’s away.
A beat. She takes her bag off and stuffs the miscellaneous items she’s been holding inside it.
A familiar head of hair.
The same returning sight, be it winter or summer,
or any of the vacations in between;
Sometimes a backpack but more often a worn black leather pouch, the perfect size to fit an iPhone, keys, a spare plastic bag.
Almost never without a shawl, in response to the incomprehensibly freezing temperatures indoors.
The same feeling of relief,
of rootlessness, rooted.
There, the space that was long distance and time difference vanishes and the longing unspoken in late night phone-calls carefully timed to match lives on the other side of the earth,
This longing finds its source.
She pushes her suitcase through the turnstile and rushes into an embrace.