Earlier today, a friend back in Boston had messaged me: “I am at your territory. You up to hang out later today?” I had spent the first half of the day capturing photos of giraffes for a final project. Their heads were larger in real life. Looking from afar, they seemed small on top of the giraffes’ long necks, but then they bent over the fences to feed on carrots and cabbages. Suddenly, the furry, T-rex-looking heads were as tall as five Starbucks cups. Their tongues were rough, purple hands, grabbing the food tentatively, and once they confirmed its edibility, they would wrap around the food and shove it into their mouths. I wondered whether the tongues controlled the giraffes or the other way around. Without the tongues, the long-necked creatures looked like giant chickens: long facial features, one huge, watery eye on each side of the head, herbivorous, slow looking.
I got on my Uber. In the driver’s seat was situated a plump lady. Her long, pink nails scratched her phone while another phone was tucked between two air conditioners in the front.
“Eric?” she said. “Going to Union Square, right?”
The car seat smelled like weed.
“Yeah.” I tried to conserve the remaining fresh air.
“There is freshwater inside the cabinet of each door if you are thirsty.”
“Um-hm.” The smell of weed overwhelmed me.
It was five. The traffic was already clogging up the streets. I looked at my phone: 20 minutes ETA, yet Union Square was just a block in front of me, filled with rows of honking metal boxes and colorfully dressed people.
“You can drop me here,” I told the driver. I got off the car, followed Apple Maps and started pacing toward the boba place where we’d decided to meet. I had trouble recognizing Union Square as red, yellow and white spilled onto the pavement, stores and walls of people. Pink and golden smoke suspended in the air, bundled up with thunderous music exploding from all directions.
I squeezed into the crowd. Parade carts burst through the sea of people, covered with white fur and red sprinkles. Under the golden GUCCI sign, traditionally dressed Asian dancers spun their long sleeves like human-sized mantises. It had been a while since I last saw Chinese performances, and it was strange seeing them so out of context. Ever since I first came to the US six years ago, nothing Chinese here had ever felt authentic — even food cooked by my mother felt Americanized. Never had they reminded me of China.
My phone rang.
“Hey, my sister got a terrible headache. I am with her on the way to the hospital. Sorry, but I probably can’t come.”
“Oh, no worries. I am so sorry to hear that!” I responded. Feeling a little ingenuine, I then followed up with a dog-eye emoji at the end. Around me, people swimming in dull gold and maroon continued cheering for the dancers; the deafening music kept blasting.
I decided to order some dim sum in Chinatown. I ordered shrimp dumplings and sat at a small table for two. The waiter approached.
“Yeah.” I didn’t want to seem alone.
The waiter looked at me and left the other set of utensils. She kept looking at me as I enjoyed my dumplings. Alone.
By the time I walked out of the restaurant, the sky had already turned dark. Chinatown bloomed under rows of lanterns hanging above the streets. The smell of gunpowder smeared away the usual scents of pastry. The firework smoke painted the sky light purple, flashing bright green, and the sounds ricocheted into a peculiar, rainstormy beat. Under the neon-colored dumpling house signs, I watched people in their fifties walking with little children dressed in Canada Goose, elderly Asian couples in cotton coats strolling, trucker drivers unloading, police cars passing by … all blended into a colorful cloud, fumbling. Alive.
A child in a yellow jacket ran by with silver flies oozing out from her sparkler. A twinkling line of silver outlined her face, and her cheeks flushed with happiness. She screamed and ran around a lamp pole. Her parents stood behind it, watching, smiling. As I passed, I wished for a brief moment that I were her.
H-A-V-I-N-G A G-O-O-D T-I-M-E H-A-V-I-N-G A G-O-O-D T-I-M-E!
A crimson red SUV drove by. I could discern four young people inside, probably college students. The car danced on the beat of Bohemian Rhapsody. My roommate and I used to listen to the song after curfew in high school. The excitement and fearlessness were irrefutable for us back then — we could feel the song in our blood. My life was colorful. Even a subtle sound of grasshoppers would keep me wondering for days. We had a good time. Now, I can’t afford to reflect on my days at night, lest I waste the precious time that could be spent sleeping. Things are seen as what they are, as disenchanted as they could be. The magic has left. And then the next day I would wake up; the back of my brain would hurt. I would take a caffeine pill, drink a cup of coffee and run to my class. Over and over.
So I bought one of the sparklers from a convenience store.
“It’s for kids.” The shop owner looked at my face.
He looked like a gang leader from Hong Kong. A huge scar crawled through his right eye. The pupil flickered in a muted blue; it reminded me of Mad-Eye Moody. His other eye poked up and down my face.
“Do you have a lighter?”
He looked at me again.
I shook my head.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a bright pink lighter. On the lighter waving was a white cartoon kitty with a pink ribbon.
“Closer.” His eye, squeezed between his coarse skin and wrinkles, stared into mine.
Fire stuck out of the lighter like a tongue. It licked the tip of my sparkler intelligently. I was reminded of the giraffes from earlier.
Immediately, the sparkler screamed out bright silvery stars. They burst out of the gray stick and flew here and there.
I stood in front of the store, and the street stood in front of me. The air was cold. Though the burning stick teased my fingers, I felt no excitement as I had anticipated; no reaction like that of the child in yellow under the lamp pole. My hands, within my reach, were a dimension away — they felt like they were in a movie. Visions, sounds, smells and sensations passed by like water in a stream. And I was the stone on the riverbed.
The stick burned out. I looked at it — charcoaled, burned out, coarse and a little sad.
“It’ll be okay,” I murmured.
The next moment, the burnt-out corpse fell into the landfill bin.