Erin X. Wong is a writer and reporter. She is pursuing a master’s degree at Columbia Journalism School in New York City.
Little coffers of foreign currency sat in piles on the TV stand, each awaiting their next ride home. The row of books behind them would all be gone within the week. The empty wine bottle and the dried rose peering over its rim prepared to be ceremoniously tossed on the final day.
The greatest volume collected like an aging store front in the hall. Blue dresses a bit too young or a bit too low hung behind button-downs that once shrunk in the wash and skirts with slight tears and itchy sweaters and college t-shirts. More clothing spilled over in the two crates below, the tags still tucked inside several items. Makeshift gifts – a fountain pen, a souvenir mug – sat idly atop two fat GRE textbooks, five battered Mandarin workbooks and a stack of printer paper in all the least desirable shades of pastel. Tea tree oil, essential oils, and a half-burnt candle lined up beside the brimming boxes and another set of books stacked up beside them. Leslie Jamieson lay atop Hemingway, Murakami, and Atwood, squashed beneath a hardback Chinese chapter book with a spine that all but confirmed it had never been opened.
It’s a bit late for that now, the occupant mused to herself. These strange bedfellows would all be off soon, onto their secondhand homes and, if they’re lucky, into the palms of new readers.
The occupant sat at the table, observing the mess and disquieted by it all. Her saving grace was to be her successor, who would adopt most of the furniture, kitchenware, hangers, and bedding. Her soon-to-be ex-partner had vied for the toaster last week, and she’d pressed the rice cooker on him as well. Next week, a donation truck would come by for the shoe rack, wardrobe, carpets, and standing lamps. Her favorite skinny little standing lamps.
As she waited for her soon-to-be to come home, the occupant ticked off a list of all the places she wanted to visit one last time. The corner store for a final bowl of fresh noodles, the lonely hill near the city center, a bike ride around the smooth expanse of the national theater, floodlit eternally from the inside out. With too many ideas to carry at once, she floated to the couch and sat down to revise her checklist just as the door clicked open and her soon-to-be stepped in.
Hey, he said, his hair windswept, the precise shade of Ovaltine powder.
Hey, she said, putting down her notebook and smiling at him. He always looked nervous at first, she thought, like someone permanently braced for bad news.
How did the packing go?
Instead of answering him, she sped over the tile floor in her white socks to scoop her arms around him. He was tall and still wearing his boots, so she could look straight up with her chin on his chest and bug her eyes at his timid face.
Hey there, he said again, smiling at last and extracting his arms from hers in an attempt to take off his jacket and gloves. So, all fine I take it?
She continued to ignore him, sitting on his lap while he tried to unlace his shoes and he laughed while dodging her attempts to cup his face. When he managed to pry off his work boots, he set them down on the deserted shoe rack and gently pushed her off his knees so he could stand and shed his coat. The occupant mewed in protest and tilted her head to peer at his shoes, always amused at their enormity. At one point, his boat-like shoes had accumulated in daunting numbers by the door, threatening to overtake the shoe rack. Set by set, they had all marched home.
She looked up and saw him steal a glance at her on his way to the kitchen. She followed, skating over to sit on the counter and vaulting into her own line of questions about her soon-to-be’s day, his writing, his work, and his own preparations to leave.
When his lease was up, he explained, pulling vegetables from the fridge, he planned to move his things to a friend’s apartment while she was away for the holidays. He’d have time to rent a car, load everything up and drive five days south to a little city bordered by a lake and snow-capped mountains. It was there he planned to disappear, save for the occasional dispatch to editors abroad.
The occupant listened, knives in hand, waiting while he washed the tomatoes and peppers. She had known this plan since they first started dating, six months ago now, and watched it solidify in slow motion month by month. She, like him, wanted to disappear and write in secret. But she knew the mountains would not offer her the same peace, and the question that had taken him some time to ask took her a bit longer to answer.
They made dinner with the single remaining pot and ate it with the diminished family of forks. Then they retired to the bedroom, stripped of all the photos on all of its walls, and stripped themselves of all their clothes.
Horizontal, they contemplated each other. He stared at the whole of her face, his hand on her rib cage, failing to hide the distress that quaked beneath his calm expression. She stared back, her gaze flickering between his two cerulean eyes, glossy and inlaid in his face in a way she always thought was so perfectly Disney.
The warm light of the remaining lamp cast a halo along his marble body. Motorbikes continued to whir and beep on the street outside, eleven stories below. Their upstairs neighbor slid his chair back and forth as he ambled around. Murmurs from the elderly couple one door down pressed in through the bedroom walls.
The last time the occupant found herself in the elevator with the elderly couple, she had told them her soon-to-be would be moving away, to a southwestern province famed for its lush hills and wild mushrooms. They had both exclaimed excitedly, assuming she would be going with him, and the occupant could only smile and nod. We’ll miss you, the tiny wife had said, pausing by the door. Her smile stretched over grey teeth and darkened the lines of her face, lines the occupant fought to memorize just then. But you know how these things go, she replied, in the spring there’ll be a fresh batch of foreigners moving in next door. They’d chuckled at that, reminded of the cycle, like changing seasons.
The occupant sank her head onto the pillow and dared to touch her partner on his chest, to trace his collarbones.
Have you thought about your Year? She breathed quietly to his nose.
He shook his head. Not yet.
I think I will call mine ‘The Year of Reclamation’. You know, reclaiming my time. Going home and reclaiming my history there.
That’s excellent, he said thoughtfully.
She purred and put her hand lightly over his face.
I think mine will have to be something like, ‘simplifying scattered things.’
Ah, yes. We have many a scattered thing, don’t we? She looked sideways at him. Sometimes, it feels a bit like our lives are exploding into various piles and boxes. I was thinking about that today. She paused. It hurts, doesn’t it?
He nodded and looked away for a moment, into the dark ether outside. Gold rectangles filled the window pane, signifying someone awake, further and further away. He suddenly turned and kissed her, rolling on top of her. They giggled together and they started to make love, but for the second time that week, her body failed to comply. Despite her best efforts to relax, she couldn’t focus—she couldn’t fall into the mindset that need not focus at all.
He propped up on his elbow, his eyes deeper than ever. I’m sorry, was all she could say, her hands hiding her face. I don’t know why.
It’s okay, he replied, his nose now buried in a pillow. After a moment, he reached over and switched off the light.
In the dark, the occupant waited until she could hear his steady breathing, then turned away and tucked the duvet up to her neck, staring out the moonlit window, trying to forget his hurt expression—trying to forget the shadow she saw there, of her own face eighteen months earlier. His brow lifted ever so slightly in the center, a question and indignation, the way she once had looked at Bird. This is it then, his eyes said, but how can you already know?
She thought she knew now, finally and ironically, how Bird had known so many months before. It was just a feeling, one that rolled in like the fog and hardened on the shoulders, in the lower back. I need some place new, it says. And nothing from this place is meant to come with me.
In a strange twist, almost to be expected at the end of a story, the occupant had seen Bird again only a week prior, eighteen months from the day they parted ways.
He was visiting town, Bird texted her, spontaneously, to see friends and old haunts like old times. They met for dinner and on the escalator up she took a scorching gulp of ginger tea to calm her incendiary nerves. But when her eyes fell on his face, she felt only relief – as though she had been missing a part of her history and he had come back to fill this thin slice of time such that now, before the start of a new chapter, this one in this city could be whole again once more.
They stepped into a hug and sat down at the slender table, jocular, framed by white curtains on either side. He explained he was slightly jetlagged, having only arrived the day before. Business school had, thus far, been nothing but kind to him. The return to the U.S. went well, with the occasional pangs of nostalgia and the persistent desire for authentic cuisine; he gestured to the menu in front of them. His brother was doing more than well at medical school and they now lived less than twenty minutes’ walk from one another.
The occupant smiled and laughed and offered an endless stream of yes, that’s right, that’s hilarious commentary. She pushed her hair back to flash her clavicles and took out her thermos for another swig of ginger. She wanted him to know how happy she was now, but the thought of talking about herself filled her mind with her soon-to-be ex-partner, ex-apartment, ex-employer, the bus card she needed to hand off to a friend, the book she needed to return to a colleague, the bike she now hated to part with, bestowed to her by the boy she’d hated to part with, the one sitting in front of her now.
The green beans arrived, then the tofu, then the spicy potatoes. She ate quietly, delicately pulling charred peppers from her mouth and piling them onto the side of her plate. She listened while he spun her stories of his life, the way it had always been.
But how are things at work? I thought things were going really well last time we spoke. His question caught her off guard and she took a moment to chew and swallow. There were no snuggles or kisses by which to hide anymore, and he’d already countered the last of her counter-questions.
It’s alright, really. The occupant dabbed a napkin at the corners of her mouth. It’s fantastic, I mean; I do love and respect the work of the organization. I don’t know, she bit her lip. It’s fair to say I’m burnt out—all the responsibilities really piled on, start-up style, especially for a junior position like mine. And then I started to become disenchanted with this elusive prospect of ‘change’. I realized I wanted something more from my work than just the broad understanding that it was good and necessary.
Something more, he nodded empathetically.
It’s strange, I don’t know how I always listened to you and Angel and August, and I always thought you were all so smart, all paying attention to the right things and pulling out the right facts. I always thought somehow, if I worked hard enough, if I read more, I could just get better at it and be like you. I didn’t realize how much I already cared about something else entirely – how much I preferred writing to any of the projects we ever did at work.
Well, you’ve always loved writing more. Bird looked at her in surprise, and her expression copied his.
I did? And you knew that too? It was all she could do to keep from asking, But why didn’t you tell me?
You did though, you just talked about writing so differently than you talked about work. I thought that you knew.
She shook her head. I didn’t. But I do now. She sat up straighter and looked him in the eye. It’s like nothing else makes sense.
He smiled. He smiled genuinely and yet he still felt so far away she wanted to hit him. He smiled and on his face lingered the same mask of condescension that had haunted her since their final drink together. Over beers, she had made her last case for why they should continue their affair across twelve time zones, an ocean, and an overweight landmass either way. We’re great together, she said emphatically, holding her arms out in open appeal, we have the same sense of humor, the same sense of adventure. And very similar ambitions, she added seriously, although these would change within the year. She would never forget the way he looked her then – slightly drunk and slightly in awe, his lips parted and caught in a sideways smile. But he had blinked and bobbed his head left, then right. I just don’t think so. I don’t think it makes sense.
Whatever weapons he punctured her with that night were long since removed, cleansed and turned into decorative objects in her heart. But something else began to close that night too, the tender closing of a door that once led to all his mind, that guaranteed her own safe passage through. By morning, as he biked away, she saw the last inches of light click shut.
Now in his smile, she saw again the other side of the door that never existed when they were together. It’s because of you, she wanted to say. It’s because you left that I spent more time with myself and learned to listen to my own desires. It’s because of the way you held me that I even knew how to hold myself.
But he was already asking about her family and friends, skipping from touchstone to touchstone of her life, asking all the questions he ought to ask to check in.
The family’s doing really well, she assured him. So were her friends, so were theirs. There was no great disaster to bring them together.
She thrust the spotlight back onto him and they both relaxed a little. He told her about the fellowship he’d just won and where he poured much of his time.
As he spoke, she remembered the sensation of coming home to their apartment when she knew he was already airborne, already hundreds of miles west. She stood there, on the half-moon mat outside their door, convinced that if she stepped inside, the floor below her would splinter and collapse, leaving a wide crater the shape of their apartment carved into the asphalt eleven stories below. Their door would swing open and back on its hinges over the shaft torn into the building, and she would fall, headlong into the abyss, until her teeth made contact with the rubble on the street. This was how she would move through the city for weeks and months to come, every place with a memory of their lives together bearing the same sensation, as though on a glass bridge, as though the ground beneath her was not safe or set, but procrastinating certain collapse. The items Bird had left behind, collections of sci-fi and whiskey and DVDs and a single unwieldly lamp with tendrils like a Caribbean anemone, did nothing to alleviate this groundless sensation. In fact, each seemed to lend a small weight to her shoulders, raising the stakes of her eventual plummet.
What about us, she wanted to shake him, What about all that suffering we did while apart? Would they never again discuss those moments of hardship that were at one point the very thing they alone shared and hid from the rest of the world? Where was the self-conscious Bird, the impulsive Bird, who hated when people were cross with him, who wore comedy and masculinity like armor over the child inside? The Bird she spent hours of her life trying to make laugh and surprise, who held her numb hands while she hyperventilated on the couch, pummeled by her own thoughts.
The occupant pulled on her own distant smile and tried not to think about the door. Bird always called the shots between them. She wasn't sure this was a pattern they could break, or that now was the time to break free.
I am happy for you, she said abruptly. It seems like you’re exactly where you’d like to be.
Me too, he replied, meeting her eyes for only a moment. I’m happy for you.
And then it was clear it was time to retire, for they would see each other again the next day and the next day and even the next, so intertwined were their lives in this city as he came calling and she drew her chapter here to a close. At these gatherings, she caught glimpses of the Bird she knew between his stream of stories and gesticulation. They still shared a particular cadence of language, a proximity of perspective, even among their friends. But each time they parted ways again, it was as though they spoke over a waist-high fence, shaking hands.
For this reason, she cornered him on the final day and, from the other side of the fence, tried to make sense of their new distance. I just wanted to you know, which honestly wasn’t clear before you came, that I still want to be friends. She swallowed.
Me too, again with that small, infuriating smile. But you know, we’ll see. I don't know if that’s something we can plan.
It was then that she noticed his freckles in the cold white lights of the outdoor mall. She always forgot to notice his freckles; sometimes she even forgot they were there. But there they were, scattered like whiskers, auburn from the sun, quite possibly her favorite thing about him, and it was then, for the first time, she truly worried they would never see be friends again.
It’s not something you decide, she muttered to herself on the way home. It’s something you fight for.
The following morning, he texted her from the airport. It was great to see you! Let me know when you’re next headed this way.
Great to see you too, she sent back, her heart pounding. After a pause, she texted a friend. Do you happen to need a lamp? Looks a bit like an anemone. Would make for good Christmas lighting.
The occupant stared straight in front of her, then to the post-its and scribbled notes papering her desk. A fat little pouch of lavender hung from a binder clip over the rim of her cubicle. Grasped by the sudden urge to hold something soft and vulnerable, she pulled it loose and held it in her fist, clutching it close to her face. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. At the familiar scent, her grip involuntarily tightened, and she wished for a moment that she could hold the entire city like this, in her palm, squeezing so tightly that the drum towers and the ring roads and the old city and its narrow streets and the subway and the bike lanes and all the people upon them would all know, for a soft second, how much she would miss them. For a moment, the color of lavender, she felt profoundly afraid the ground might soon drop from beneath this concrete behemoth, cascading right through the soil to crumple in ruins somewhere halfway toward the center of the Earth.
But icy flurries continued to pound the office windows, and behind her, she could hear desk chairs scraping against cheap wooden floors, fingers tapping away at outdated keyboards. An elevator arrived at a distant floor, chiming hello.
Her soon-to-be ex-partner would return from his trip later that day. He would land at Terminal 3 only a few hours after Bird took flight. Quietly, the occupant promised she would fight for him, for their private corridor between two open doors that took hours and idle afternoons, arguments and resolute love-making to build. She prayed he would feel less of this impossible fraying she felt now.
The final work week was much worse than the occupant imagined. If objects in the hallway continued to grow, impeding her morning departures, it was nothing compared to the remaining mess on her desktop hard drive.
For every project, she completed a summary of the previous and remaining work, logging them into a master file. For every contact, she wrote a formal update connecting them to a colleague and logged them too, with general notes, into a strange, subjective record of her memories as an employee. There were brief emails, extended thanks and goodbyes, emails to download and save, one last newsletter to send. On the penultimate morning, a project lead stopped by her desk to request a complete calendar of events for the following year; the deputy director notified her of a first-round interview later that day; and the square-jawed, straight-laced human resources head dropped off several forms and a checklist to ensure all her office belongings stayed at the desk where she had found them. He leaned on the rim of her cubicle, beaming in a way that must to him have seemed fatherly. It’s okay if I send out the notice that you’re leaving today, right?
It’s fine, the occupant chirped, her voice cheerful, her face blank.
We aren’t looking forward to it, he called, already halfway down the hall. The occupant made a face and burrowed back into her archives, recalculating how late she would need to stay to wrap things up.
Over the conference table that afternoon, the candidate asked the occupant her favorite part of working at this organization. The occupant took stock of the hopeful expression on the candidate’s face. It’s not easy, she said, I’m not sure we say that often enough. You have to believe in what you cannot see – the history of our work, the story of its impacts over time, in numbers, yes, but more so through behavioral change. You have to believe it is there without universal recognition. You have to look at those around you and think, the history I know to be true, that’s something that you did. And you learn to admire the giants around you and that—that’s my favorite part of working here. Recognizing the strength of our leadership, even if it’s not always headed where you would like, trusting the legacy of our leaders and your own ability to contribute to legacies still to come.
And it is possible, the occupant thought to herself, to believe all of this and still be wanting something more.
Sure, the candidate frowned, processing this information. That sounds incredible. The occupant smiled, standing up to shake her hand. You’ll be fine.
There were, of course, loops that would remain open, perhaps indefinitely, hanging over the heads of those responsible who had long since abdicated their roles. Their overseas project – stalled after several attempts at funding – would likely shrink into an extension of their website when they finally found the time. Several half-written articles brought the occupant exceptional shame as she dragged them from her desktop to the digital incinerator. She would never again attend the vague foundation project as the regional diversity hire, nor would any of her colleagues. All these futures belonged to someone else. The occupant sat there against the darkening sky, ticking off the folders, the USBs, the laptop, its accessories and charging cords, the paper clips – every last one, listening to the omnipresent thrum of the office lights.
She signed her name at the bottom of the completed list and began to pace about the emptied office. As usual, she peered into all the dark rooms, peaceful but for the blinking machines. She circled through the kitchen, where she had perched so many afternoons before, either maniacally hammering at her laptop or gazing wistfully out the window, half a dozen wafers disappearing inside her. She placed her hand on the bulbous printer to thank it for all the times it had secretly printed in color and never gave her intentions away.
Was she lucky to be standing on these shores? The dull dust of the office seemed to think so. But was she wrong to be leaving now?
After a last lap, she knelt down below her desk to survey its calming depths, blanketed with wires and extension cords. More than once, the occupant had occupied this very space, curled up after hours, working into the night long after she had already clocked out. She used to tuck her knees next to her chest and look out at the pale wooden floors, the wheels on all the chairs and little cabinets, the tiny chips of paint on the lower walls. She used to hold either side of her face in her hands and try to fight the pounding stress, the anxiety that threatened to consume her. She used to cry here, because that, she thought now, is what happens when you grow and you can’t always choose when and where that might happen. She thought of the candidate’s vapid face and wondered if she too would let it get to her, if she too would be as strong and as weak.
The occupant stood now and returned all the reports on her desk to their closet reserves. Into the bin with the remaining papers and business cards of lesser contacts. Into the shedder with the terribly expensive and now obsolete visa materials. Into the kitchen with all of her snacks. She nestled her notepads, select folders and pens into her backpack before dusting every clear surface with damp paper towel.
At last, the gauntlet of the farewell lunch arrived. The team lit candles atop a cake with white petals and fat strawberries and asked the occupant about her plans for the following year, of which there were only loose shards refracted into the ghost of a plan. Then the occupant sat at her desk for a few hours more, drafting a last email of thanks, while colleagues stopped by to wish her well and bestow hugs and thanks. She pulled a brave face for them all, reflecting on how intense quarrels and confrontations all faded away against the backdrop of healthy professional relations. Most of this string of well-wishers surprised her; here was the program director who always appeared bothered by her questions, the officer from another team who regularly ignored her presence in meetings. She finally stood up when, with the same humorous grimace she loved, her two closest colleagues shouldered their backpacks, handed her letters, and motioned that they would walk her outside. There was not much to say that had not already been said, only for the last time, Keep in touch.
She had forgotten to wave goodbye to the company director, as she last saw him deep in conversation with another colleague. She would always compulsively regret this last loop left open, but it was too late now – she was biking home. She was finally free.
Departure from the office filled the occupant with the tantalizing desire to be alone, for days or even long weeks buried in the small radius around her apartment. She needed to pack, to process. She needed to be alone to remember, to write down all the lessons she wanted to take with her.
But there would be no easy respite. Dinners and lunches and end-of-year events stacked up wall to wall up until the day of her flight and despite her reclusive urges, they, along with evenings entangled with her soon-to-be, still promised reckless, insufferable joy. The following night, her circles pulled out the woodwork to wish her a final, collective farewell – a night, she decided, that was more for the books than for the soul. This, however, did not stop her from hoping that some sort of closure would come from behind the illusion of the efficient goodbye.
As always, the occupant ran a few minutes behind. The bartender with the manbun smiled in welcome, pouring her a pineapple IPA. A few couples she didn’t know sprawled across the first floor and for a moment, the occupant hovered nearby, reluctant to head into the line of fire. She pretended to read drink labels in the glass casings on the wall, eavesdropping on a local girl trying to convince her friends to fly north to the ice festival.
When the occupant heard familiar voices at the entrance, she retreated to the staircase and hovered halfway up, regulating her breath with four counts and eight counts before mounting the last few stairs. She entered a room she knew well, splashed in yellow light with glossy wooden tables spread out along the perimeter. One wall comprised entirely of shelves up to the ceiling, covered in ivy and assorted outdoors gear in the bar’s passionate attempt at a theme. An orange kayak hung vertically against a pillar in the center of the room. Just behind the pillar, a group of middle-aged expats swapped updates over burgers and beer.
Late to her own party! One of her mentors waved from the back of the room.
I’d hate to surprise you all by coming on time, the occupant grinned back and stood sheepishly to the side while two women scooted over for her to join.
We came early so you could provide us with the full update, another mentor clasped his hands on the table, raising his eyebrows at the occupant in mock concern.
I quit my job! She announced, raising her hands ironically to accept the outburst of applause. Thank you, thank you.
And next year—yes. Next year I’ll be pivoting to writing. I’m still interested in all the same topics, all the same causes, of course, but I… I want to narrow my skillset and focus on what I’m actually doing day to day. Now I’ve been given this window of time, some savings, the next year is for me to create. Maybe some freelancing, maybe some fiction. I think… I’m excited to give it a try. She swallowed nervously, the warble in her voice evident in the dead silence.
Bold move, a boyish friend jerked his head in approval, shrugging off his backpack as he pulled up a chair. I like it.
We use freelancers a fair amount, a petite friend with bangs said from the occupant’s side. What platforms are you thinking of using? And where will you be based?
What type of writing do you want to do?
Do you already have a beat in mind?
The atmosphere filled with excitement as quickly as it had emptied. The waters now churned with questions for which the occupant had not thought to prepare. It became a race to hammer out the specifics, an interview by a panel whose opinions she held in the highest regard. But everyone seemed satisfied by the blurry details and eager to offer their own opinion – so she would move back stateside, wow, they loved the west coast, but why spend a month in Hong Kong at a time like this? So she hoped to spend more time with family next year – good for savings, I suppose. Do you get along with your folks? I couldn’t stand mine when I lived at home. The occupant couldn’t quite discern the varied reactions to her professional pivot and an anxious train of thought whirred in the background as she chatted excitedly with the women on the couch.
When they were distracted by the arrival of a popular couple, a tall, angular man in a tweed jacket sat down at the end of the table and raised a hand to the occupant. Balding, with long arms and a thoughtful face, the eldest of her mentors peered down at her and said without smiling, It’s been a good few years getting to know you. And it’s always hard to see someone go. But we’re stepping off into the deep end next year, aren’t we?
The occupant withered under his professorial gaze. Maybe a little, the occupant admitted. I think I haven’t quite wrapped my head around how hard it’s going to be, maybe for the rest of my life, if I keep up with the writing.
You’re sure about it though, are you? There are plenty of firms here who’d love to get to know you. You could look at their offices abroad.
Yeah, I know. I know. It’s just—, the occupant held his gaze, Nothing else makes sense anymore. I’ve thought about all the options. I always planned to stay for longer, but every day at work, this was all I could think about. Setting myself loose and seeing what I could do—maybe that includes crashing spectacularly.
The elder winced, as though the thought of a professional crash-landing physically hurt. You’re young, he muttered. And there’s always more to do here anyhow; it’s never the right time to take off. He smiled ruefully at her and inclined his head toward the early arrivals. Sometimes, obviously, we never leave.
The occupant wanted to say more, to somehow properly make her case, but the newcomers approached their side of the table and she leapt to her feet to embrace them.
Anyway, the elder clapped her on the shoulder, as long as you’re sure, I’m sure you’ll be fine. Take care next year. He turned to shake hands with the young husband as his wife threw her arms around the occupant.
I can’t fucking believe this. First August, then Bird, then Angel—now you! I’m not sure I can take much more of this, a friend the occupant had come to think of as an older sister whispered frantically in her ear. She put her hands on the occupant’s shoulders. What am I going to do without you?
The occupant placed her hands over her sister’s and sighed theatrically. Guess you’ll have to find a new trivia team. Guess all your friends will be married now. Her friend snorted and shook the occupant by the shoulders, escalating into a miniature tantrum.
The room began to fill slowly, friends and acquaintances arriving apparently in reverse order of their age. There were the last remnants of her book club, the Asian American affinity group, former colleagues and classmates and more recent friends bleeding into the older crowd. Somewhere, thankfully, a speaker began to thrum with drums and an electric guitar, tuning out the occupant’s anxious whirring. Her sister was laughing herself into hysterics, holding the occupant’s arm and leading her downstairs for another drink. Pushing through the throng, the occupant grinned and waved, trying to embrace the grim glamour of the occasion.
When the occupant turned to find her fellowship cohort calling to her, the evening accelerated all at once. People swelled around the speakers, nearly blocking the entrance, and two friends were locked in heated debate over the aux cord. Winter coats piled on top of the couch and the atmosphere grew distinctly warmer. Her sister spoke animatedly with one of the occupant’s colleagues by the kayak, and there was her soon-to-be ex-partner, who sat along the room’s edge with a couple of his friends.
As she helped herself to several snifters, the occupant made the rounds of the room. After a while, the structure of conversation began to remind her of choreographed dance. Embrace one another; circle each other as you run through the status of work, significant others, and mutual friends; clasp hands, hand to shoulder, hand to waist, and ask questions; twirl and dip when you arrive at the coming year; touch hands in congratulations; bow, switch partners. The more she danced, the more the occupant eased into the rhythm and grew confident in her own steps. Each friend carried themselves differently in this last little dance; some were slow and sentimental, others saucy with excitement, still others mysterious and romantic.
Friends asked about her plans, where they might meet up again. They noted projects they could work on together, resources that might come in handy, openings at their own place of work. I’d love to come visit one day, they said, or maybe we’ll meet up in a year in Europe! The occupant found herself echoing the same. I’m not worried. We’ll meet again someday. At another time, at another age, but they would, of course. Wouldn’t they?
They told her they would miss her, that she was brave and thoughtful and mature, that they learned from her and wanted to keep learning. They roasted her, they chided her, they reminisced. In turn, she confessed many things she had never said to them before – you’re an amazing storyteller, you completely changed the dynamic of our team, you inspired me to live by my values.
And yet, for all the dancing, the confessionals and nostalgia that took the occupant by the waist and whirled her, it was still possible to enumerate in her head all the people she invited who had not and would not come, all the things she still needed to do, all the private disdain she imagined when she told the story of her coming year. She not quite tell which was heavier—the weight of everything outside this room or the wonderful weight of everything within.
Sometime around midnight, a late arrival entered with a bang, her high-waisted balloon pants a matte array of rainbow colors. I’m here! She cried. Where is the occupant?
By then, the flow of people had thinned to core group huddled around a long standing table, erupting sporadically into raucous jeers as participants played a drinking game. After one particularly aggressive roar, her boyish friend picked up his backpack and tapped the occupant on the shoulder, so she walked him to the door. I think that’s my cue to leave, he laughed, pointing his thumb at the tumult behind them.
I’m here for a few more days, the occupant started, Any chance I’ll get to see you again?
Her friend shook his head. I’ve got a train home tomorrow for the holidays. I think I’ll miss you before you get back.
They looked at each other for a moment, the long walks and Saturday brunches called to attention between them. Then the occupant waved her arms playfully, in the hopes of diffusing the weighted air. You’ll keep up with swing-dancing though, right? I bet you’re amazing by now.
Absolutely! He agreed, laughing as he always did, kindly at her. And you too, of course. I’ll be checking to see you’ve kept up.
It was occupant’s turn to shake her head. I’ll still be shit. But I’ll always want to see you. Here, or in New York, come visit me in Seattle. Any of those. You’re always welcome. She found herself confused this time, looking up at his pale face, his long neck, his perpetually buttoned up collar, because the charade didn’t work this time. Of all the people she spoke to tonight, here was the first dance she led to a standstill. Not only did she not know the next time they would meet, but the answer mattered enormously right then. If she did not know then, well, it might never happen. And it had to happen, because it had to.
He just beamed at her. You’ll do great, man. I’ll miss you, but you know, be in touch. He hugged her, stepped away, and went for another hug, this time holding on with unanticipated force. The occupant, her eyes wide over his shoulder, thought she saw dust falling from the skeletal rafters above them.
This time, when he pulled away, the boyish friend clapped her on the shoulder with a small smile and turned definitively down the stairs. She watched him go, turned and bolted in the other direction, side-stepping the debaucheries of the late-night crew, up another set of stairs to the third-floor bathroom. Alone in the dank, dull green bathroom, the occupant pressed her palms against the tile wall and bowed her head, screwing up her eyes. Amid the music and laughter downstairs, she thought she felt the floor tilt and the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.
Everything kind they said to her stacked up like boxes, brimming with colorful, one-in-a-lifetime finds. They stacked up like bricks, like the crates of excess in her hallway. They filled her with something solid and indelicate and, like the items Bird had left behind, began to rest at the base of her neck, spreading over her shoulders and arms, threatening to pull her down as the feeling of falling once again trickled down from the top of her head—stronger this time, full-bodied, all-encompassing. She opened her eyes a crack and the bathroom floor swam into focus, replacing the imagined vertigo for a real one. She spat in to the toilet bowl and tossed her head to clear it, her blood thinned and coursing merrily through her. It was her weight to bear; it was part of her now. It was bigger than any one friend or partner or mentor; it was the precise weight of two and half years of her life, down to the decimal of every precious minute.
A girl’s voice outside introduced itself to another. And how do you know the occupant? They asked.
The occupant flung the door open, gawking at the girls in line.
They cried in salutation and asked how she felt, and the occupant gushed happy thought after happy thought as much in dialogue as to herself in the bathroom mirror.
When the three returned, everyone was on their feet, final drinks in hand. Someone put her arm around the occupant’s shoulders. Two taller friends began to usher the party out of the bar, into the night. Where are we going? The story began to blur before her. Do you have your coat? Down the stairs. To the main street, into cabs, one by one. Her sister linked arms with her in the backseat, chatting excitedly to the girl in the front. Where do you want to go? Where are all the other cars going? Ask the occupant where she wants to go. But the occupant wanted to slip down into the cushioned cab and stay there as they drove onward forever, taking her wherever. As long they stayed in motion, they would never need to wake up. I don't know, anywhere is fine. Let’s just stick together.
The street outside flew by as they turned onto the freeway, the ring road, the lamp posts gleaming like fat yellow diamonds ripping by. As they careened around roundabout, the occupant felt the left-side wheels lift ever so slightly from the asphalt track. She leaned into her sister, already squashed in the middle seat, allowing her squeals to crowd out the emerging panic between her temples. Then the car sped down an incline, from the roundabout bridge onto open freeway, pedal to gas. The occupant saw the lights blow out on the top floors of towers whooshing past. The nose of the car pointed at a ten, twenty, thirty, forty-five-degree angle with the road below, until the windshield filled with speckled concrete and it became impossible to fight the sensation of plunging forward, into certain collapse.
Hey, are you okay?
Her sister tugged her arm, and the occupant realized she had grabbed her with a vice-like grip. She blinked up into the worried face of her dear friend. Yeah, I’m okay. She inhaled through her nose, forcibly, then out through her mouth. I just think someone else should decide. Through the windshield, city lights again blinked and chirruped ahead of them, the road in front virtually flat for a league in every direction, until the plains reached the mountains on either side. She looked around for her partner and realized he’d taken a different cab downtown, though she thought she’d heard his voice in hers.
When they arrived five minutes later, the intersection was flooded with boisterous parties of people. They were smoking, laughing in packs, ghostly lit with white and technicolor lights from the clubs towering above them, like great townhouses, each promising their own haunting adventure. Harsh bass bumped through black doors and clashed rhythmically amid the throng of people. Promoters and scalpers threaded their way through the crowd, approaching strangers at random. Pencil-thin women in shorts huddled together, their midriffs curtained by oversize coats and decorated with silver. Grown men shoved each other raucously, dangerously, while the notoriously underage pounded mojitos on the sidewalk.
Her sister took the occupant by the arm again and threaded their way to a street corner, where they collided with the rest of the group, the bartender from the party inexplicably present and grinning among them. They crossed the street while cars and three-wheeled metal boxes honked aggressively, sifting their way through the crowds further down the row of clubs, practically singing with momentum.
Where are we going, does anyone know?
I think they’re leading the way.
I heard people are at Playhouse.
I hear Lantern’s good tonight.
Let’s go here, the occupant said suddenly, offhand. She spotted a metal gate between two buildings, taller than a door, with no door, entwined with fluorescent lights like daisy chains. She broke into a trot away from the group, skidding to a halt in front of the gate. This is it then, the lights arched over the entrance. But how can you already know?
The occupant grinned and glanced back, motioning for her friends to follow. Then she squinted down the dark alley, down a set of stairs to another fluorescent light a hundred meters away—an arrow angled down and to one side with more cursive lettering above. This Way.
Exhilarated, the occupant leapt down the stairs toward the second signpost, the cacophony of the crowds dulling the deeper she went, as though above water while she dove in. Somewhere near the last step, she tripped and brought her hands up to brace her fall. But they swept clean past her knees and feet, through the earth itself, until she was upside down, falling headfirst in a black space below the city. She gasped, and looked up to see the dark blue corridor of sky began to shrink from either end, the east and west side of the city lurching upward, two palms folding together, as though she plunged into the spine of book whose pages had begun to close.
Damp leaves and cigarettes fell like snowflakes through the air, the screech of warped metal moaning against this new, unknown gravity. She heard heavy objects thud against walls as buildings caved inward and downward, crumbling fragments of brick and plaster cascading like silt falling through fingers. They fell along the deep seam of the alley, shattered glass and loose rocks of coal glittering against the black, all tumbling together, this way, this way. In the distance, radio towers and high-rise hotels impaled apartment blocks, temples, and bridges, cracking and smashing and rumbling. Water from the ancient city moat and stagnant rivers flattened silver trees, splashing into a sheet of rain over spinning lampposts and automobiles. Something soft and solid hit the occupant with force, and she clung to it as still she fell in full surrender.
She was crying now. All the little boxes she collected all night had hardened into ice, into iron and steel, pulling her downward from the center of her chest, somewhere she did not understand, into darkness, into black. Then, miles above her, the mountains surrounding the city thrust together with a final, resounding crash, grinding together against the end of this chapter. Everything that came from above, bicycles and bamboo, tea cups and tea leaves, embroidered shoes, forbidden books, computers and watches and handbags from the new world, chops and brushes and porcelain from the old—everything tumbled down and away from the folding city in a single, beautiful plane. The great dissolution of something she once knew as whole and complete, something solid to love and understand, to stand upon.
Somewhere below, the occupant thought she heard rushing water. In the air, she tasted salt.
The other occupant held his partner as she sobbed uncontrollably into his chest. He shook his head at her friends standing by, peering anxiously over in surprise and concern, still clumped by the edge of the alley where there was no gate, no stairs. A couple of them walked over and put their arms around his partner. Eventually, she pulled away just enough to whisper, you guys go on, please.
I think everyone just wants to spend time with you tonight, her friend started.
I just can’t right now, his partner said softly. She licked tears off her lips as she stared straight ahead. I’m really sorry. I just can’t.
They nodded solemnly, stroked her hair, and walked back to the group, ushering them away. The occupant squeezed his partner with both arms as she allowed herself to wail once they were gone. He thought he’d never seen her so desolate; he watched as waves crashed through her body. When she’d quieted some, he nudged gently her to cross the street, holding half of her weight as they stumbled home.
In the elevator, he watched her lean, disheveled, against the mirrored wall and gaze up at him through bleary eyes. Maybe I’ll sleep in the guest bed tonight, she said absently, so I can wake up and pretend to be another person.
The occupant stared down at her without judgement, simply watching. Then he took her back into his arms. Don’t do that.
They both collapsed into the bed, but he stood up again to fetch them glasses of water, leaving hers by the bedside as she lay there, her back to the room. For a while he settled down to hold her, as one spoon holds another, as the ocean holds a little whale.
In the warm cloud of the bed, he stared out the window and thought maybe he would miss her mess after mess. Maybe he wouldn’t though. Maybe he’d prefer the still of the mountains. He thought how, in the six months it took for them to fall in love, he’d written his first full longform story. He’d moved into this apartment and back out again, in time to their agreeable conversations. He’d gone home to see his family and friends, to meditate on moving to a new part of this country so far from the one they called home. He and his partner talked about all of this, this helpless mode of pre-transition, when change is slow and impending. They knew all along it could end this way, but they’d thrown themselves into it anyway, because six months is still an epoch of time, just enough for a good perilous fall.
Every Saturday morning that summer, he sat on the roof of an artisan café, sipping iced coffee while they read together in the shade. Sometimes she asked him to read aloud, her head on his lap, snapping up photos of singular clouds. As the seasons changed in a heartbeat, they’d taken to the couch in her apartment instead, their music flooding its quiet corners. It seemed foolish at the time to question their siloed hours alone. Once, tucked away without their friends, the occupant had justified their time together aloud. It’s not like we’re not still learning about the world. In fact, we are in greater detail, just in a narrower field.
His partner had laughed and played with the long hair on the top of his head. I am learning though, you’re teaching me to be nerdy about writing.
They compared the length and style of their kisses to punctuation. They were jealous only of other writers who the other admired, but neither of them had ever met. The writing itself always brought them together and it would, perhaps, be the only thing that remained after they parted ways.
After an hour or two, the first rays of light slipped in unnoticed. The occupant nestled his nose into his pillow and closed his eyes.
The bakery downstairs already set out the day’s first offering of rounded dough, and wafts of cinnamon filled the stairwell. The grocery across the street blinked open. On the corner, the noodle shop threw open its windows to let steam roil out into white-grey skies. Morning deliveries zoomed by on electric scooters, drowning out shy clicks of wildlife – the scuttle of roaches dodging drips in the drain, the flutter of pigeons, a twig snapped under the paw of a weasel.
At half past eight, the occupant rose again to draw the curtains closed. His partner scowled in her sleep and rustled deeper under the covers. In the kitchen, the occupant watched the traffic trickle by on the street below. He filled the coffee grinder and twisted its lever once, twice, sixty, a hundred times round, putting the kettle to boil around fifty. He took the French press with him as he settled into the couch and opened his tomb of a book.
At half past ten, his partner wandered out from the bedroom, shrouded in a blanket draped over her shoulders, clearly near tears again. She burrowed like a field mouse in the curve of his body.
Hey, he ventured softly, I thought of the name for my year.
His partner looked up, distracted. She adjusted her feet so she could lean on the couch and look at him directly, their legs tangled together. What will you name it?
The Year of Tying Up Loose Ends.
She gave him a small, watery smile. I love that. What does it mean?
I don't fully know yet. I’ll have to tell you next year, he said, meaning at some imaginary time they both believed in.
She put her arms around him, tucking her face into his long neck and they sat there a while in the living room, surrounded by tall piles of objects – books and sweaters, jeans and tote bags, medicine, sacks of spices, canned and dried food. Suitcases lay open on the floor while the rest of the apartment grew emptier still, all their belongings collected in this center room, as though the occupants had called an all hands meeting. Little plants sat in a row by the door, awaiting a scheduled pick up by a friend. The movers would come in less than twenty-four hours’ time.
They nuzzled and stretched as morning creatures do. They allocated the remaining coffee and made plans for when he would return that day to gather the rest of his things. Then he followed her to the bedroom, where together they stretched the duvet to its queen-sized corners, smoothing the open expanse, until it looked as though no one had slept there at all.
On the final day, the soon-to-be ex-occupant sat the window of a café in one of the long narrow alleys that stood as both common neighborhoods and living relics from centuries past. Single-story grey brick walls extended for hundreds of meters in either direction. The curved tiles of the rooftops gave the appearance of piping, angled toward the street and ending in sharp diagonals, like sliced bamboo.
To the east rose a giant, state-of-the-art shopping center with three-story bookstores and the high-end outposts of international brands. On the dividing line between these two districts, high speed sports cars moseyed their way past vendors peddling hawthorn, steamed buns and folded pancakes, calling to passersby as they had for centuries, while the faces they called to changed, migrating from across the country, now from all over the world.
The occupant stood and paid for her coffee, shoving her notebook back in her bag. She found a bicycle outside and began to peddle north, past the t-shirt and shorts drying outside someone’s front door, past the hostels, past the winged archway of intricate blue, green, and gold denoting this quarter of the city. Past massive museums and government halls, past the vast and solemn square.
On this final detour, she could not help but imagine every passing face, every road laid open as a chapter unfinished, someone or something she might have known, who might have opened a new corridor of thought. She had given the rest of her belongings away, all the dresses and sweaters and uncooked rice. She had cleaned every crevice and checked every drawer. She had seen every person she needed to see, said all the words she intended to say. Still, all the possibilities as yet unexplored lay open, tantalizing. They buffeted past her on the wind, knocking her forehead, tousling her hair.
Over the bridge now, over the river reflecting brilliant green willows. Past the ancient city within the city, its painted white trees and its matte red walls. Through the park gates, half-shaded in the golden hour. The occupant climbed slowly at first, against a steady current of people coming down the hill, each with the same dark hair and complexion, the same as her own. Then she broke into a run, taking the wide stone steps two at a time. She circled the first pagoda, running her fingers along the red columns. She climbed again and circled the second. Then she reached the top of the hill, packed with people. And there was the sun, a fraction already sliced away by the horizon, full enough to blaze onto the assembled crowd, scalding their vision.
The metropolis below glowed pink and orange. An open book, unbound, filled with tragic, glamourous, overlapping stories she would never read, that evaded logical conclusion. And that was it, that was the feeling—a story that has ended, but will always hold you within, that will always feel raw, even as its loose ends fade into black.
As the sun slipped past the far edge of the city, a small sigh rippled through the viewers, who were lost, as she was, in delicious homage to a place they loved. They stared, as she did, as though nothing else made sense, as though there was no great desire for something more to keep at bay. And with that, the occupant turned to go, onto the glass bridge, out of the story.