Premonition by Christina Qiu
I’ve realized that there is only one truth in the world. You only get one enlightened day, and that is the day you die. The rest of your life, you are moseying around, kissing toads. Trying. Then one day, you wake up and the world is two-dimensional, clear as whitewash.
That’s what Timothy the Buddhist told us, and we used to mistake it for some incensed earlobe fat-boy shit, next to karma and naked nirvana. Thin Lin used to pin him up against a wall to test his peace. Tim, if you died, would you turn into a flower? Tim, can you meditate while getting jumped? Hey, Tim, what about the first one to piss you off eats your lunch?
But the day Thin Lin died, the first thing he did after waking up was to run over to Timothy’s house, four blocks over, and ring the doorbell. At first, no one answered. He rang and rang and pounded and pounded until Timothy ran to the door and Thin Lin crouched on his knees, pleading for forgiveness, and through his weeps and whimpers, you were right you were right. Timothy went on his pudgy knees and wept. They spilled into each other’s arms. You should have seen that – the little thin boy inside the doughy boy; or if you looked at it psychologically, the psycho weeping to the mellow; or if you looked at it historically, the bully crying to the victim. The finality in the boys’ good-bye, so obvious and breathtaking that even the morning jogger woman with the pink headband stopped in awe.
Sometimes I feel Lincoln High School works like a centrifuge: separation by density and by color, flung to opposite spectrums. We group by blood. Disassociated and mixed in. The yellow in one corner, the black in the other, the white in the middle, the brown around. Conglomerated yet divided. Coalesced in polarization.
So naturally, Thin Lin and my brother, Mike, seemed to stick together like Labradors, from the beginning of middle school. They, and their band of whatever they called themselves, the Azn Invasion or the Chink Chick Killers, started out playing Frisbee together, then loitering around the pool, then wearing ninja suits to school. The graffiti started: this huge AZN INVASIAN spill in red and yellow and black along the sides of the oldest Irish pub, or the anime face with the doll eyes on the forehead of the alley way garage, or the bowls and balls of Sharpied rice that invaded both the girls’ and boys’ bathrooms at school. And it wasn’t all this ethnicity either. They ate together and they slept together, Mike on Thin Lin or Ming or Jeffrey’s couch for the weekend, or all of them in our basement on Wednesdays.
One day, Thin Lin invited me over with Mike for burgers, so we drove to the McDonald’s five minutes away from the school, and ordered three fries, three Big Macs, and three large Cokes. We sat on the edge of a railing next to the smelly landfill to eat. Thin Lin raised his hamburger out to toast, and Mike did the same.
“Got rice?” Thin Lin asked.
“Got rice,” Mike replied, and they sunk their teeth into the bread like feet through quicksand.
That day, when Mike went to the bathroom, Thin Lin went up close to me and twirled my hair in his fingers, whispered in my ear while staring into the sunset, “Hey, Ning, you see the sun? How brilliant it is?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“That’s me. That’s us. We got to outyellow the sun, you know.” He laughed.
I snorted. “I don’t.”
I can’t explain how he looked at me afterwards, like some little bewildered disappointment, but he slid his nails along my leg and said, “Oh, but you should.”
The women baristas at the Blue Sun Coffee Shop, fever trying to be intellectual, start talking about death by stupidity while making my strawberry smoothie. Screaming to hear themselves on top of the whirrings of the blender. Motioning with their arms to make a point. Tapping their chins to think. Show offs.
The only Asian boy in school who wasn’t friends, or at least friendly, with Thin Lin was Timothy the Buddhist, chubby and glasses and snorts like a pig and seaweed for lunch. It wasn’t always like that, with Thin Lin and the Chink Chick Killers’ constant jeering and teasing and sneering, and Timothy the Buddhist’s walk and avoid. They used to be friendly, you know. Joke around a bit, all brother brother, shoulder shoulder. They used to laugh.
Thin Lin asked, “How ‘bout you join us after school? We’re going to rice up the bathrooms.”
Mike told me this was during Thin Lin’s English class freshman year, and Timothy chortled like a hog and said, “Don’t think so.” And Thin Lin kept on poking him and saying, come on, come on, why not, be proud of yourself, for God’s sake, you have the glasses, come on. And finally, Timothy said, “Seriously, Lin. It’s stupid.”
“Yeah, Timothy. Seriously stupid you won’t come.”
“No, this idea. This whole yellow thing. That’s stupid.”
The bell rang, and Timothy, chubby thing, shuffled out the door, and Thin Lin said, “Oh yeah? So that’s what they teach you at Buddhist school, huh? Fucking color blind? Go fuck yourself, you white-washed piece of shit.”
That day, Thin Lin and his crew made a pact to make Timothy one of them, and they had no clue how to do it but through submission, but the more oppressive they got, the more Timothy ran, until all they were was tired and all Timothy was was gone, and no one would say anything except for an occasional jeer in the hallway.
That red head with the blue bow, the one capping my smoothie, she’s saying that everyone dies from stupidity or old age. Obviously, she’s never lost anyone. At least not anyone as stupid as Thin Lin.
He wasn’t always a poser, though, Thin Lin. He was magnificent in the way green maple leaves in winter are magnificent and apple bits covered in cinnamon are magnificent. Fresh, maybe, but also sensitive, eyes wide like a lamb. If love, the churning kind of love, with flipped intestines and tongued tumults and midnight maskings, sounded like anything, it would be Thin Lin’s arms, stringy as style, or Thin Lin’s nose, curved like a hip. Or if snow falling felt like anything, it would be Thin Lin’s fingertips, his slow manicured nails from his parent’s filers at their nail salon, or his tongue wandering out of his mouth when he got too close to a girl’s lips. Thin Lin, when he was silent, was so beautiful that even his Portuguese neighbors, who wouldn’t even eat fortune cookies, had to sit still in awe, when he stood on his apartment fire escape at midnight, his hair damp from the shower, and his eyes thoughtful as the moon.
The day he died, I dreamed of him knocking on my porch steps. Filled, see, with the too brilliant rays of a dream, his face twisted in distortion, and I asked if he wanted to see Mike, but he kept coming at my feet and saying, “Ning, Ning, for years I’ve been yearning for you, Ning.” And I was about to tell him that I had too, but I woke up, and by then, he was dead.
The day Thin Lin died, he broke into the school with nail polish remover, and got caught by the administration weeping on the girl’s bathroom floor, wiping the Sharpie from the stalls. The little mochi’s and their slant eyes and peace signs, the slogans, the rice bowls, the Asian GenerASIAN, the Asian ElevASIAN, the cute little dragons. All of them, wetted down but still clear, and Thin Lin, watered down and broke. No one knows what happened, just that he got suspended for breaking in on a Saturday, and that was hardly something new.
You think of the dead like gods. You shower them with flowers, and they live in the folds of your clothes, the words of others. I can’t remember ever getting pissed at Thin Lin and when I try to remember his face, all I remember is this brilliance, rounded out like rain from a rainbow. His laugh, laconic and meaningful. This is how memory mends: I can’t remember a face, but I can remember a feeling. The breath of his voice surrounding my ear – I can’t remember that sensation, but I remember something there, something existing. When I see a girl with the same eyefolds, feathered not creased, I remember Thin Lin’s crinkles when he smiled, like the crunch of folded aluminum. These specific details. If you asked me to draw his face from memory, I couldn’t. I have a recording of his voice from some videos on my brother’s phone, but I don’t remember his voice; it isn’t the same. So Thin Lin is this ambience, almost, flitting around everything like a subconscious underlay, and no one knows how he looks like or what he feels like, just some facts about him, like he had three dimples and he loved his coffee with extra ice and extra milk. That even though he threatened boys with kung-fu, he never took a class in his life. That his real name was Roy, but he changed it to Lin. Facts that never seem to add up to a whole.
I had to go deep to find missing puzzle pieces. I was a freshman and Lin was a junior when this happened. Mike was sick with pneumonia and I was stranded at school, so Lin picked me up in his red pickup truck, glinting like glass in the autumn wind, and all I remember was shivering outside with this gust biting the insides of my cheeks. Lin had on music. He blasted it with the windows open. I sat in the car. Lin had this laugh on his face.
“Hey, who’s this?” I asked, tapping the volume adjuster.
“The Fugees, ever heard of them?”
“Sure.” He turned away from the school.
“God, I wish I lived in Jersey. That’s where everything is.”
“Like, you know, a superfluous amount of my brothers. Heritage.”
It was silent when it started raining, drip by drip. “Cold?” he asked. I nodded. “Wanna close the windows?”
“Sure.” When he closed the window, he started fiddling and mumbling with the controller.
He smiled. “Did you see that new mochi figure in the tunnel? Me and Mike and the crew, we went out and did that.”
“Yeah, Mike showed me.”
“Did you like it?” We stopped by a red traffic light in the middle of Main Street.
“No. Not really.”
He rotated the steering wheel and we heard the car rattle. “Damn, Ning. You’re so white-washed I can’t even stand it.”
“Stop. You might break the car like that.”
“Shit, I’m more concerned about your denial.”
“There’s more to being yellow than fucking mochi. We’re not even Japanese.”
“No, it’s not just the mochi. It’s that whole ambience.”
“Yeah, but Lin, you do the whole thing wrong.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” The light turned green.
“Hey, Lin. The light.”
“Tell me you like them.”
“Jesus Christ, Lin. The light.”
He folded his hands in his lap, and watched the rain like a mirage on his window.
“Lin, you gotta fucking go.”
The rest of the cars seemed to have this line of lights ready, a symphony of honkings and hurriedness. “What the fuck, Lin.”
“No.” and it was as if some invisible hand pushed me out the door, and I ran into the rain, drops like fingertips on my skin and dust in my head.
I don’t remember seeing anything except for this muddy mess of impressionism or so; that’s what rain does. It blurs. It catalyzes, and Thin Lin driving next to me, screaming, “What the fuck, Ning? Didn’t you know you could kill yourself like that? On my watch? Goddamn it.”
“All you care about are the cute things. But when it really comes down to being yellow. God. You don’t know shit.”
“Get back in the fucking car.”
That’s a piece of the puzzle I never got until the day Thin Lin died. The day Thin Lin died, or the night that he died, when the police came over, that interlude was playing in his car, like an ongoing laugh, constant and constant, wheeling.
Somehow, Mike got his hands on the Fugees album. A year later, and we all went to a memorial ceremony held in Ming’s house, where he has this shrine dedicated to Thin Lin, with all his pictures bordered on his small mirror, and a couple of letters they got their hands on. An essay Thin Lin wrote about The Outsiders. A math test with a mochi doodle on it. The Fugees album. A cartoon that said, take your damn shoes off!!! Ming handed the album to Mike and said, “Something tells me Thin Lin would have wanted you to have it.”
God, for the past year I haven’t been able to explain what forced me out of the car and never back again. And now Mike is playing this again, and it’s pausing and tracking again to the interlude Thin Lin died to and the interlude I walked out on. And now, I know it was nothing mysterious like the way memory mends things. I know the obvious, about how I was worried that he wouldn’t go, that he would wait and stay. The honks of the cars behind me building this anxious pressure against the walls of my body, so much force that I had to leave. And now I see Thin Lin’s anger and his hands folded and the green light.
Mike is huddled around himself like he is cold, listening, and he tells me, “I didn’t know Thin Lin had this album.” And now I feel like how I must have then, even though that sensation is blinded by the folds of memory, so I rush out, and I’m running running running, but it takes me a while to realize all I’m doing is sitting, outside the door, listening.
One thing you should realize is that there are no more raids at Lincoln High School. After they caught Thin Lin scrubbing the bathroom doors, they painted it back to a neutral gray. It didn’t feel right going to that old Irish pub and seeing the spray-painted doodles everywhere, so a couple of girls got a black spray can and made this big black square around every single drawing. It wasn’t the Chink Chick Killers anymore; it was Mike and Ming and Jeffrey and Jang and Drew and whoever else. And no one said anything about Thin Lin. Even his red pickup truck, so battered up, got stowed away for scrap metal.
What did we have? I keep walking around, you know. Still, after a year of getting used to not seeing him with Mike and not hearing his voice in the halls and not seeing fucking mochis in the bathroom. I keep going to the parking lot corner of the Irish pub, thinking he’ll be there. I’m sitting on the ledge edge of the parking lot, and there’s his voice, calling me whatever he did. Princess or honey comb or baby bear. I keep thinking I’ll find him still thin and laughing, and he’ll wrap me in his arms and be like, “Shit, you should have known I wouldn’t die like that.”
But the parking lot is always bare—empty enough so I can hear my own breathing. I wait for minutes. I wait for hours. I go kicking at any fucking loose stone on the ground and kick it as far as I can, watch it land in a middle of green nothing, hoping when I turn around, he’s telling me about his stupid graffiti adventures or his idiot yellow comments. I go touching the spray-painted bricks, scratching at those black squares, so I can get a glimpse of what his drawings looked like again. I go debating with my shadow about whether he got into heaven or hell, and when I answer neither, I look up at the stars to see if I can see his face. But there’s never a surprise. It’s black, empty, bare. Reminders.
We don’t know how he died, no exact details, but we do know that the day Thin Lin died, he was alone. We’d expected something grand and beautiful of his death, like some sort of Dally ending, brilliantly escaping police, shot to death, magnificent rolling and releasing until the last strand of life was teased out of his lungs. But when the police got to the car, he was strapped in his seatbelt, unconscious, and by the time they got to the hospital, he was dead. He never moved.
You see, I refuse to believe that. I’m looking at his pictures now, in this little album that Ming distributed. The crinkles around his eyes like the delicate milk of a baby butterfly. His thin long fingers. His transparent brown eyes. They tell me he was still when he died, but I imagine him without a seatbelt, and when the car hits him, he’s flying flying up in some rainbow trajectory, as if his body is rejuvenated and swung by moonlight, until he floats down, dead without a sound. A pat, a little spank. Majestic till he’s landed.