a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
Centuries of travel taught me countless lessons, the most important of which I shall pass on to you today. Encounters with dangerous landforms and deceiving aliens convinced me that one—and only one—sense was trustworthy. Even on Earth, water appears to bend an otherwise healthy straw, a nonexistent person always seems to knock on my door, the sweetest chocolate leaves the bitterest aftertaste on my tongue, and I can smell the salty ocean from the middle of a desert. Perhaps these illusions seem insignificant in comparison to the world—something interesting to acknowledge but nothing worth worrying over. I understand if that is what you believe. After all, distrusting the senses you have relied upon throughout your life would be stupidity. But the truth is that you could not be more wrong. You, an infant in the universe’s eyes, are adorably innocent and ignorant, and your life is limited by the world you live in.
Let’s journey to another world.
Lullaby of birdland, that’s what I always hear
When you sigh
Never in my wordland
Could there ways to reveal
In a phrase, how I feel.
“We should probably go inside,” Elle says. “It’s dangerous here, you know.”
The two other girls don’t listen. They stand with their backs to the house, watching the sky
curdle into black above. A sheet of dust covers the road, clothing the air in its smell. The street lights have gone out. Inside the house, the TV has turned to static, the screen blinking to life only in intervals; any minute now and it’ll be dead.
That pink teddy bear has been in my room my entire life. It came with us on each move, stuffed into a suitcase and spat back out onto my new bed, its eyes fixed on me again in each new room, watching me always. That pink teddy bear has never had a name to me. I’m not sure I ever really liked it as a child. It was ragged and old, its figure stiff and its design uninteresting. Its glassy black eyes peeked out from behind tufts of faded fur, bubblegum dye bleeding out to the ends of each coarse hair on its aging coat.
Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault
They sat in the pavilion by the rugby fields with eyes fixed on each other, yet glancing sporadically towards the window through which they could see the rain falling in thick, opaque sheets and hitting the ground where the rain pooled and the mud roiled. Thin boys, the lot of them, swaddled in enormous blue and maroon shirts and clenching body and jaw to avoid the semblance of trembling.
Caleb doesn’t like walking with his parents. They speak too much about college and the future, he thinks, and he’s only in seventh grade. He gazes out his window: to the left, the movement of cars across a canyon, up, the sky is overcast, and soon it’ll rain.
Utter stillness started numbing his senses. The lush forest, luxuriantly filled with massive wisteria trees, emanated a rather foreign air. He could not hear any birds chirping nor feel the wind caressing the bushes and branches. It was as though the nature surrounding him was so imposing that it chased away the sound. Amid the absolute silence, the vibrant purple color of the trees blurred his vision.
I had a dentist's appointment one day. At first, it went as usual. Lying face up at the ceiling while a stranger shoves metal objects inside my mouth, accompanied by the occasional wince in discomfort whenever she happened to strike a sensitive part of a tooth. I stared at the TV attached to the ceiling the entire time, drowsily watching the cartoon characters dance across the screen. It was boring. So boring that could feel my consciousness slowly drift away from reality. But that’s when it happened.
The morning air was heavy. The sun was barely peeking over the horizon, and the dust of the room was visible in the air. Kade was sprawled across the bed, staring at the popcorn ceiling, observing its intricacies. The longer he looked on, the worse he felt. The longer he pondered, the more the weight of his own situation pushed against his heart, threatening to encompass it completely.
I walk through the halls of school, the smell of secrets hanging above our heads in a thick smog. It doesn’t bother most of us; occasionally a freshman will get stuck in a cloud for too long and choke on their own lies, but the rest of us are used to the suffocation. Whispers are the only things that echo off the concrete walls, carrying the seed of hatred to ears willing to sow and let it blossom into truth-muffling roses.
Sometimes you will have these moments where you forget all the constructs we have built as humans, whether that is language, technology, or social customs, when we realize that everything we’ve invented—the lives we are living—come as a consequence of trying to distract ourselves from the fact that we are strange beings, standing on a strange sphere in the middle of the blackness. We are an enigma, a mystery, something to not be trusted.
The day it all started, a hiss had been heard from Pennsylvania Avenue. It seemed to linger, almost tantalizingly, as passerby turned, questioning. Suddenly, the hiss seemed to gain more air, building up in a crescendo, like a sinister piano piece that no one wanted to hear.
Eyes widened in recognition.
I wish humans came with labels.
Not labels like ethnicity, or sexuality- but the things we really care about. The things you can never uncover in the first meet.
Then it would my laughter merging with my best friend's,
causing a dent in space, a permanent mark saying "we were
here, and this is how"
[Content warning: themes of abuse]
I used to have trouble understanding what secrets were. What the term meant. Why people felt the need to keep things locked away from one another. What was the purpose of hushed voices, or solemn head shakes from my mother, signifying that this was not the place to discuss things like that? It seemed that there were many things that I didn’t understand.
Dirt piled as you buried me with lies.
Behind our school, surrounded by bright flowers and trees, you dug my grave. I lay there, starry-eyed, as my lungs filled with fertilizer.
It’s a traditional house, because every morning when the sun rises, when sweet yellow rays reach to kiss our bronze skin through the hand-sewn curtains and double-paneled windows, they only find mine. Habit. A syrupy morning dew floods my eyes, its own brand. Through the glass panes of the kitchen window I see an image of Grandmother and her shriveled pink lips that stretch and shrink and tell me the sun must always find the females first. Her buck teeth are bared, and her tongue spits house myths. I scrape cucumber seeds from their wet pockets over the marble island. And that’s only because Grandmother likes when I am at sacred work, upholding the rituals of a good Muslim girl. Habits and legends
In my sophomore year of high school, I was elected as the President of the Debate Club. I was already very popular by then: tall for my age, top of my class, proficient in off-beat languages like Hawaiian and Lemerig that I had learned on Duolingo over Christmas break, when my parents were fighting over who was having an affair and who would pay the bills and who would fix the washing machine.
Ruth and I watch the leaves.
They flutter in all the various shades. Golden yellow, rusty brown, a shade of purple that seems more singed than eloquent. Our backs press into rasping rocking chairs with gaps stretched thin like old taffy, and we watch the leaves wind down stark lines and interstate roads. Sometimes, the sky looks like colorful fabric and the wind seems like sparse, invisible threads. Mom says that the falling leaves are a puppet show, worked by God.
Ruth and I watch until sweet smoke curls under our legs and the moon hangs so low we can see the glare off the tops of our heads. Ruth’s hair sweeps past her shoulders, so brightly colored that I can see it through hazy bars of lamplight. She loops it around her fingers with a grin that’s all teeth. “Shall we go to the kitchen? I smell pie.”
“I hope it’s apple,” I say.
“Well, I think it’s blueberry.”
“It’s too sweet to be blueberry,” I explain, but Ruth just shakes her head, gripping her wailing rocking chair.
“It’s blueberry,” she says. “I can feel it. It’s definitely blueberry.”
I press my lips together and look away. Dad says that Ruth is like Mom, with blonde hair and pebble-blue eyes and a voice that sings like a canary. I’m more like he is. Bony hands, seaweed hair, arms that cross and dangle like swinging branches. Our faces are acute angled jaws and bunched up lips. Mom and Ruth’s faces are loose skin and gentle curvesNat is the perfect one, the only boy. He’s tall, full of skin, and when his jaw slopes steeply, his cheeks curve like apples. He smiles with his teeth, like Mom and Ruth, and he swings his arms, like Dad and me. He watches the leaves, too.
The sound of a squeaky pushcart echoed through the hallways, accompanied by the efficient click of heels striding across the tiles. The twenty-something woman glanced around the library as she pushed the cart, finally coming to a stop at the biography section. She began shelving books, pausing occasionally to read a few chapters of the more interesting ones.
It has been nearly three years since I visited my mother’s homeland of Hong Kong. The bustling crowds and skyscrapers that pierce the sky, built on mountains upon mountains of green. I have traveled to this metropolis almost every year, forcing my way through a long 15 hours of flight, so I should believe that I’d be used to its culture; the freezing air-conditioned malls remind me to bring a sweater next time, but the second we leave the facility, I want to peel off my clothes, sticky on my skin. Family dinners with gong gong, po po, ayi’s and a spew of relatives I forget the faces of, revolve around a giant table filled with roasted meats and colorful vegetables. In order to eat at the breakfast hole-in-the-walls (buns with cookie crusts and salty meat stuffed between white bread) we must take advantage of the 12-hour jet lag to eat early in the morning. To me, this is Hong Kong.
There was a time when there wasn’t war, when red meant roses, and not the wounds of a body, the tingling surge of some things missing, tides of blood out of a broken skin. It was a time when ears still knew music, singing voices and the ebullient magic of them, and not the shots made by guns.
I wasn’t born into the war; my brother was. Around the same age when I learned about the fearful avidity before stepping into a river, pants rolled up and tanned skin fondling the water, he learned about a country that was torn apart and sewn back together, stared with his newborn eyes at the seam left behind, jagged scar on the face of an entire people.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.