Surprisingly, the bathroom door is ajar. Gu Kwun pushes it, gingerly, so that it swings open a little but not completely. The back of his mother’s head is just above the tub, and he wonders at her bathing with the door unlocked. What worries him more is the thought of seeing her naked. He is nine.
When she does not respond to – are you having breakfast? – he prods the door further open and steps halfway in. The water looks cold. No steam fills the room, the mirror is clear. His mother’s eyes are closed. Gu Kwun averts his eyes from her nakedness and touches her arm. No life.
In the kitchen he opens the freezer. Where has all this ice come from? Stacks of trays, more than he can ever recall. Emptying the cubes into a bucket, he thinks about making more ice. In the bathroom, he drains the water, piles the ice over his mother’s body. Then, he leaves. Closes the door.
Six days pass. Home is as it always has been. His books sit neatly on the desk in his bedroom. On the seventh morning, he gets dressed for school and sits at the dining table waiting for breakfast. But Conchita does not appear, smiling jo sun, carrying two white bowls of steaming congee on a tray. Their live-in Filipino domestic helper has vanished the way his mother has. He glances at the shut bathroom door. He hasn’t used the bathroom for almost a week.
At school during break, Gu Kwun looks for space gang – Caspar, Janie, Kazuo and Shalini – but they’re not in their usual corner. In fact, the school is filled with faces he doesn’t recognize. Even the teachers seem different. How many more days will he wander around like this, waiting for his friends to return, for Conchita to walk out of the kitchen smiling, for his mother to wake up?
Caspar Mak quit WORD, abandoning his fiction once again. Hopeless. He never got beyond this point in trying to write about his dead childhood friend. Kaspar’s Warp – where the dead went about their daily lives, their consciousness tethered to the structure of their worlds, unable to desist despite the truth – well, it was a stupid idea, a poor imitation of every paranormal tale ever written. All he knew was somehow, that Warp needed to petrify to resurrect the dead. Like Anderson’s Tin Soldier. Was death tin? And what about the paper ballerina? Give it up. He would never be a writer, despite what his friends and teachers believed.
Fatigued, he surfed the news.
Caspar was sixteen and what he most wanted was to move back home. He’d returned yesterday. Why he had to go to a prep school in Massachusetts, while his parents continued to live and work in Hong Kong, was beyond him. Time’s person of the year is YOU, he read, meaning the web and its worldwide connectivity. Dumb. Equating people with technology was like the one-legged soldier’s love for a dancer because he thought she was also, like him, one-legged, when really, her petrified state was just the arabesque. It was what you didn’t see that got you. Like Gu Kwun, his best friend. Bitten by a snake and dead at the age of seven. Ten years later, he was still in perpetual mourning, or something perilously close.
His cell phone buzzed, break-danced on the desk top. Unfamiliar number. He tapped Speaker. “Yea?”
The familiar voice, airy, shy, just a hint of mischief, “Space bunny?”
His heart twirled. “Janie Hammond. You’re really back.”
“Little late, better than never. Kaz and Shalini said you’d be home for the holidays.”
Strawberry blond wisps blowing across her face, an impatient hand brushing them away. Janie. His crush and valentine at six, nine, twelve, until, at fourteen, he saw Jimmy Wong kiss her and he pouted a year, stopped talking to her, and then she was gone, her dad transferred back to The Wall Street Journal in New York. Kaz and Shalini said serves you right, dork! He masturbated to her memory for two years and then was sent to the States, just as her dad was transferred back to Hong Kong. Life wasn’t just unfair, it was insane.
Janie and Gu Kwun and Caspar. Space gang. From kindergarten, they migrated together into grade school at HKIS where Shalini and Kaz joined them. Only Janie would dare use that silly nickname now. Even Shalini, despite her outrageousness, wouldn’t dream of it. Caspar and Shalini were the two who weren’t at least partially American, no longer unusual at American International. His parents were Canto Hong Kong workaholics, Harvard B-School. Which made him a noisy, not quiet American-to-be. But space gang wasn’t about the right passports, residences or degrees. Their families had too many to keep straight, and were entirely too loud about how things had to be.
They missed their quiet one, Chak Gu Kwun.
Christmas Eve. The city a-glow with too much neon, tinsel, gigantic Hello Kitty look-alikes as the four of them circled the levels of Pacific Place mall, trying to forget their futures. Caspar was trying even harder to keep his hands off Janie who had become – and this he still didn’t quite believe – willowy and edgy, irresistible.
“Hate it,” she said, in response to his query about school in New York. “Detest, despise, deplore it. Like every bad, high school movie. Don’t miss it at all.”
“So tell us,” Shalini said, “how’s New York?”
Kaz laughed, hugged his now-girlfriend. The two became an item last term after Caspar left. Shalini almost half a head taller, in heels. It upset Caspar’s sense of symmetry, but Kaz looked constantly content now where he’d always been a wreck, the worst pill popper, so this probably was a good thing?
Janie was pointing at a revolving doll four levels down that looked like “a mutant crossed between a dog and a chicken.” In a red and green tutu, it stood high against some gigantic logo. Sugar Plum Fairy was tinkling, loud enough to deafen the atrium. “Could Christmas get any more demented? It’s even worse than I remembered.”
Caspar lightly punched her. “Oh so maybe New York’s not so bad?”
“It’s not New York, or America. Just high school there. College will be different, that’s what Dad says.”
“You sure about that?”
The group assented. Mr. Hammond was the only truly cool parent they had.
The four stopped at the top level of the mall, slouched against the barrier, each facing a different direction, murmured groupspeak. Comfortable. Sane. Caspar felt he had never been away, that it hadn’t been almost two and a half years since he’d last seen Janie, that Gu Kwun was still with them.
Kaz spoke first. “So what would GK study?”
“Economics,” Caspar said. “Then the MBA at Harvard like his Mom.”
Shalini smiled. “Law. Just to be different. And then he’d defend every Chinese dissident who ended up in jail.”
“Medicine.” Kaz offered. “Like his father. That way Dr. Chak would finally pay attention to him.”
Janie looked away. The others waited. Casper thought she looked sad, but then, they were all sad, remembering GK, his fierce mother, his patience, his striking stubbornness when he knew he was right.
She said. “He’d go to art school.”
They went silent. She was right. GK was real talent, and when they played at Janie’s, her father remarked that. I will be an artist, he declared, a month before he died. Your mother? Caspar asked, but GK brushed it aside, she’ll want what’s best for me. If I tell her that’s what’s best, she’ll trust me. Caspar pictured GK’s tall mother, a serious-faced investment banker whom they all were afraid of although they never told him that. GK saying, politely, that he was going to art school. She, furious. Livid. GK insisting, never raising his voice. The imagined scene made Caspar happy.
Shalini, finally. “Ten years ago. Thanksgiving. Remember the funeral? His grandmother never stopped crying.”
Kaz squeezed her hands, brought them to his lips.
Janie straightened up, raised her bottled water. “To GK.”
The others echoed. “To GK.”
Afterwards, when Caspar and Janie were alone, he worked up the nerve to take her hand. She didn’t resist. It was like that with them, this lack of resistance, just as he wished he could take the path of least resistance, to maybe study philosophy, write fiction, and eventually try for the MFA, Iowa or Michigan, which he could present to his parents as the Ivies of writing. His teachers were telling him do it, that his talent shouldn’t be wasted. He told Janie all this who listened. Why had he ever allowed his wrath to come between them? He told her about “Kaspar’s Warp,” the story where he simply couldn’t see the ending. When they parted, she kissed him high up on his cheek, grazing his ear. “Send me your story when it’s done. I’d love to read it.”
Afterwards, he heard her voice again, the night Jimmy Wong ambushed her with that publicly passionate kiss, his hands sliding down her butt as they danced — I didn’t want him to. It wasn’t supposed to — and shuddered at his horrifying jealousy, his unreasonable rage as he shouted across the party room, slut, slut, fucking bitch!
Janie and Gu Kwun. And me. That was how it had been, him as the extra. Even though they were far too young then for that to have mattered, it mattered to him, always had. It was what was wrong with him, what made him different from the others who could do what they were supposed to in life.
Afterwards, he took the long way home, knowing it wouldn’t matter on Christmas Eve because both his parents would be working, doing whatever they did behind closed doors up to the last hour, minute, second of their days. Sundays or holidays didn’t make any difference. Each kept an office at home.
The MTR was packed and Caspar had to wait through two trains. He considered walking –wasn’t that far from Admiralty to Causeway Bay to catch the mini bus up Braemer Hill – but his mother would undoubtedly ask him how he got back, he couldn’t lie to her, and then she’d go on and on about how it wasn’t a good idea to walk in Hong Kong, especially along Queen’s Road East where the pavement often narrowed, because drivers were so careless. As if she knew. His mother never walked except in shopping malls. What she wanted was for him to take a taxi, but Caspar didn’t want to be like everyone else, taking taxis everywhere, acting like they owned the world because, at least here in their bubble of a city, they did. Because they were, as Shalini declared, “the privileged offspring of those who more or less run the world,” and their futures, or so they had been told since forever, was to live to own that world.
The train jerked to a stop and he spilled out with the crowds, trying to stay his course. They all had their courses ahead. Shalini a doctor who must refuse the arranged marriage. She’d dated Chinese, French and now Kaz, Japanese-Brazilian from New Jersey. No defaulting to some ancient Indian despite her grandparents in Delhi. Kaz was just Kaz, geek, nerd, computer fanatic who once hacked into the Hong Kong government’s website, only to declare it too lame to bother with further. Some kind of genius. Janie would be the journalist, or researcher who worked for NGO’s. Her father had custody since the parents’ divorce so she could mostly ignore the carping of her Canto-freakish, over-achieving mom. Okay for girls to over-achieve and do the career since some decent guy would come along, especially for someone as intelligent, kind and drop-dead gorgeous as her. But boys, they had to succeed in the right life, marry the Chinese wife. At least, boys like him did. His parents didn’t even know about space gang. His mother definitely didn’t know about Janie. Yet space gang – even now he embraced that childish name – was where he came alive.
The mini bus took off and chugged uphill, rounded the bend. His building came into view. Disembarked. Rode the lift up. Passing fourteen, his throat caught. Like yesterday that they were both seven, Gu Kwun saying, this is me, and he, okay, see ya. The lift door opened at twenty two. He stood at his door. Both his parents shoes were neatly lined up outside. He positioned his key. Waited.
Gu Kwun stands outside the bathroom and places his ear against the door, trying to hear the sound of water. His mother is taking a bath. That must be it. What other explanation is there? His mother is taking a bath. In a little while, his mother will emerge wearing her bathrobe. She’ll go into her room, close the door, get dressed. Then, Conchita will serve dinner and the two of them will eat together and he’ll tell her all about his day at school. That’s what has to happen because nothing else is acceptable.
What couldn’t he see?
Time sped up. University split them, Shalini and Kaz off to the UK. Janie, Stanford, he, Harvard, where he took a little philosophy and even creative writing. Electives. His mother didn’t care as long as he majored in Economics and his GPA didn’t slide below 3.85, which it never did. Graduation, Janie’s text, so, MFA? He hesitated, texted back, Law. Her reply, WTF?! He did not respond.
Time sputters. Petrifies. The present arrives and he is a second year law student.
One day in the library, fatigued by too many words on the page, he is surprised by her text from Hong Kong. Hey u ok? No, he wants to say, no, I am most assuredly not okay. But that is not an acceptable response.
He scrolls through his notes, hits Save but goes to the wrong folder, the one marked FICTION, unopened for a long while. “Kaspar’s Warp” sits there, untouched. He recalls her wish to read it. He meant to send it. No reason now, he doesn’t think, and files his notes on contract law into the folder where the rest of life resides.