Story by Anita Wu
Leaves were embracing a new colour palette as the cold kissed the air. Students emerged decked out in autumn pride, counting the days until winter break. But Quinn felt isolated from the excitement as she sat in her philosophy elective, uninterested, sketching in her notebook instead of writing lecture notes.
She had volunteered to draft the design for the banner of an upcoming event for a music club that she volunteered for. None of the other associates were keen on taking on the task, so Quinn stepped up to the plate. It was probably not the best idea, since she didn’t have the time for it. It was due at the end of the week, and she had only just started.
The professor rambled on, but Quinn’s classmates were more interested in the stories on their phones. She took a second to glance at the clock; 10 more minutes of class. She wondered if professors ever worried about boring their students. Quinn glanced at her watch, dismissing the lesson once again, and tried to plan out the rest of her day.
Twelve o’clock: Lunch time for everyone. Meeting for me. Her stomach reacted loudly. Piano practice at one. Another class at three. Work till nine.
Packing her belongings, Quinn glanced around at the crowd of students. Some questioning the professor, some leaving, some chatting. The conversations revolved around the biggest party of the week, but Quinn tuned out in an instant. She had more pressing matters at hand.
She left, hurrying to the meeting on the other side of campus. Passing through a glass door, she vaguely saw her reflection. Her dark hair was in a messy bun, complemented by her typical look: a hoodie, jeans and her sole accessory, textbooks. Even with all her responsibilities, Quinn wondered if she should care a little more about her appearance. The thought was short-lived, interrupted by a familiar greeting.
“Quinny! Where are you going?” called a friend. Always “dressed to impress,” Ali cared about how she looked. Colourful, cheerful. A ray of sunshine in Quinn’s life.
“Wrong way. It’s too cold for a picnic!” Ali skipped towards her, a prettily wrapped box in-hand. She saw Quinn’s arched eyebrow. “Wess? Lunch? Birthday? Surprise?”
“Shit,” Quinn muttered under her breath. Quinn the obsessed workaholic, Ali the aloof extrovert and Wess the calm caregiver. The discrepancies between their personalities were what bonded them since the beginning of the school year. Quinn and Wess were especially close—ranting to each other about all they had to do to make their parents happy.
“I’m so sorry.” Quinn glanced at her watch. She had called the meeting to work on the group assignment for her sociology class that was due in two weeks. She could not be late.
“Have another group project to work on?” Ali questioned. Quinn stayed silent. She would have loved to have lunch with them. It was just not an option.
Ali nodded back and walked off, red curly hair bouncing with excitement. It contradicted the mood that filled the air. Immediately, Quinn started typing a lengthy heartfelt birthday message to Wess, wishing him “the greatest day” for being “such an amazing best friend” and apologizing for not being able to celebrate with him.
As cliché as it was, Quinn was forever grateful to have met Wess. He was the microphone that amplified Ali’s joyous emotions. At the same time, he could just as easily calm her waters whenever she was upset. He became a shoulder to lean on whenever Quinn felt the world was against her.
Bzzt. Bzzt. Quinn’s phone vibrated. Māma. The message bubbles appeared in blue, one after the other.
“Qín-Yǔ. Nǐ yào qù gàn má?” Qín-Yǔ. What are you going to do?
“Wǒ yào qù kāihuì.” I’m going to a meeting.
“Nǐ chīfànle ma?” Did you eat?
“Nǐ fùxíle ma? Yǒu méiyǒu ná hǎo chéng jì?” Did you study? Did you get good grades?
“Nǐ kuàiyào jìnshēngle ma?” Promotion soon?
“Yes Māma, of course,” she replied. Because her parents had done so much for her. Working day and night, they saved every penny they could for her education. Being sent here would give her a fighting chance. It’s been a year since Quinn came to Canada, and even now, her parents were back home in China, working still, saving to pay for her tuition and living expenses. It had always been about her.
They thought highly of her, expected much from her. She could not let them down, did not want to disappoint them. Repaying her parents for all the work they’ve done was something Quinn had to do. So if Mama ever called—which she did, often—Quinn would always ensure she provided her undivided attention.
Mama was a typical Asian parent. In her philosophy, children not answering their phone must mean they’ve gone missing. Slipping grades meant devoting their life to getting back to the top. The best for her children must be sending them to prestigious schools, even if it meant never being able to see them.
Perhaps Quinn was a typical immigrant student. She always listened to what her parents thought was best, never giving it a second thought. Her parents’ expectations became her expectations.
Mama finally let her go as Quinn arrived at her meeting. Five minutes late. The rest of the group was waiting on her. All members were present, but Quinn wondered who actually did their research for today. Group projects were never fun; she usually ended up doing most of the work because she wanted to do well, to make her parents proud. The next hour would be painful.
Bzzt. Bzzt. The sound was a relieving distraction from the late-night studying Quinn was attempting to do. It had been a long day, and all she wanted was to drop onto her bed and pass out. The lights were already off because her roommate was probably out partying again. Her roommate was still out partying, actually. That was the only reason she would be able to study right now. Yet she spent more time trying to stay awake.
The notes for the course she was studying for was as interesting as class this morning.
“We define our identity always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the things our significant others want to see in us. Even after we outgrow some of these others—our parents, for instance—and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live.”
Bzzt. Her phone vibrated again. Messages from Mama, asking if she went home already. Quinn dutifully responded, then noticed something. The long, descriptive, apologetic and beautiful birthday wish sat unsent in her messages. Of all the times she could have missed doing something, she forgot to send this one message that meant everything. It explained why Wess did not respond—he didn’t have anything to respond to.
Quinn got up from her desk, piled messily with textbooks, paper and supplies. Two pictures framed its one tidy corner. One of her, Ali and Wess—the day they met at orientation week, hopeful for the years ahead. The other of her family back home. All smiles, but their eyes let slip the weariness and long nights. Her parents had owned a small restaurant stall. Two adults who focused more on making money to spend on her future than on spending time with her. Meanwhile, she had to focus on her studies, always alone in her room, with no company.
She went to the washroom to wake herself up, her eyes stinging from fatigue. She stared at the mirror, disregarding the messy bun that was about to fall out. Her black pupils stared back at her.
The sink spoke to her. Everything was there, somewhere. Hand soap, hand cloth, cleanser, moisturizer, toothbrushes, cups. Everything that you would need at a moment’s notice. All there, somewhere. Actually, it was kind of a mess. Packaged tablets spilling from a ripped open box, but Band-Aids neatly in another. A bottle stood tall on the other side, like the last man standing.
Where was the face wash?
Where was the toothpaste? In the top cabinet or the bottom?
Was the first-aid kit still in the bottom corner at the back? Or did someone move it somewhere else?
Breathing did not work. Quinn brought her palms to her face, covering her eyes, hoping it would stop the tears from falling. She backed away from the mirror until she hit the bathroom wall, then sunk slowly to the ground. Everything that a person should want in life, she had. Education, talent, jobs, friends, family. Her family was proud of her too, weren’t they? Wasn’t that all she wanted? But then why? Why did it hurt so much? She crouched there, head against her thighs, eyes shut, hands searching for any kind of reassurance. But it found nothing, just her own clothes, wrinkling from her grip. Her nails dug into her skin. The physical throb, a comfort. She only had herself.
But she wasn’t who she needed. All the unwelcome thoughts flooded in, even as she was too tired to think, choking on her near-silent wails. Those that she suppressed, surfacing only when the wells overflowed.
Why are you doing all this for your parents? Do you want recognition that badly? Where are the people who care? Who actually cares? Who are you? The thoughts muddled together, sending stabs of emotion through her.
The physical pain brought her back. She released her grip and barely registered the marks she left on her forearm. The tears finally ran out, but she still had the night ahead of her. Nothing would get done now. She washed her face and stared at her reflection once more. The same dark pupils stared back at her, now saturated with red and pink.
She fixed her messy bun and trudged back to her room, grateful that her roommate was not home. She unlocked her phone. 1:43 a.m. She backspaced the drafted, unsent message.
“Happy belated birthday! I hope you had a great day!” Sent.
She plopped into bed and passed out.