I came back for Thanksgiving break on Wednesday around 7pm. Traffic was bad. The wind was blowing so hard at times that I felt my car jerk on the road, so much so I slowed down on my way here. That’s right, a speed devil like me actually slowing down and driving at an acceptable pace. The other reason why I drove so slowly was that I was listening to an audiobook, and I couldn’t both charge my phone and plug it into my speaker at the same time, so when my phone battery was running low, I had to focus in order to hear it above the roar of the engine. I was listening to Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. We both saw it out side of Dr. F.’s classroom once, on her list of recommendations. I passed by it so many times because the title made me feel like it was a teenage romance novel.
Not that I was against that. My bookshelf would say otherwise. But I’m older now, and that’s much too childish for me.
But a drive that I always boast about arriving 30 minutes earlier than I normally do managed to take me almost 6 hours. It’s unlike me. I worried my parents when I got home, which I never do – my mother told me that she had planned to exercise, but she was so worried that she had heard nothing from me and that I had taken so long to arrive, that she had started to fear for the worst. She had been sitting in from of the television, she says. She was looking out for bad news.
I hugged her. I apologized. I’m not sure where my mind had been. It was unlike me.
Just like how it was unlike me to forget your birthday. I realized that with a jolt on Thanksgiving morning as I chatted with my parents while eating a pear. I was looking at my phone, about to show them a picture, when the date caught my eye.
Late November. Thanksgiving. Your birthday.
Wait. It passed.
And I froze for a bit. A short blip. Nobody noticed anything; I quickly jumped back into conversation, a quick trap instruction. An unnoticed interruption to our regular programming. I mentioned it in the car to my parents on our way to Maryland a few hours later, and they paused for a bit. No worries, my father had said. It was about time. He had always felt like I was too close to you, anyways. Now that I’m graduating, I would understand that people didn’t really have many friends in day-to-day life. That was just school. Work would be different.
I had no energy to say anything back, and just continued staring out the window, marveling slightly at how the landscape was always changing slightly every time I came home. Familiar, but with a new shop or bridge here and there to throw me off just a bit and remind me that I’ve been gone. Away.
To be honest, I had been frustrated with you. My central complaint though, is that I was disappointed. I’ve been told that I only remember what I want to remember by a friend of mine. I suppose that’s true. My strongest memory of you was when you came to visit me this summer for my birthday. For my birthday, you took a plane across the country. We had just left LACMA and were looking for a place to eat dinner.
You had asked me what I wanted to eat. “Poke!” I had responded. I love raw salmon. I would always joke with people that the way I’d like to go is by mercury poisoning from eating so much salmon – although as a side note, after looking up the side effects of mercury poisoning out of curiosity, I realize it’s quite a gruesome way to go and I’d like to take back the seriousness of this claim. You looked at me and said, “Well, we can get poke back at home. Since I’m in Los Angeles, why not something that we could get here that we can’t get back at home?” To which I had agreed, and asked you what you wanted. And you replied, “But it’s your birthday. You should pick what you want to eat. So don’t ask me. What do you want to eat?”
I got so cross and annoyed. Poke it was then. When I was listening to Never Let Me Go, Kathy would always talk about the atmosphere of a conversation. Looking back, that’s maybe how I’d describe that night – the atmosphere never quite returned back to normal between us. I was irritated. Everything surged back into me. When you arrived at the airport and had wanted me to Uber there, pick you up, and then Uber back to the apartment, and I had passive-aggressively suggested you just make your own Uber account. When you had insisted on seeing everything there was to see in Los Angeles, and yet after one trip out, you had wanted to go back and rest as I could tell we were both getting irritated from walking around for so long in the sun without a break. All the times that we had hung out and had such great conversation whenever we met again, seemingly just picking right up from where we had stopped last, seemed to me like they were memories with a new filter that I was peering at them through. I was frustrated. When conversation tipped to internship searching and professional life, I thought back to all of the times I had given you advice on what to do and things you could try. I felt like a broken record. I felt tired of helping you, and frustrated that I seemed to now have a life that was different from yours. I was frustrated that it felt like you were the same, like we were both still in high school, like nothing had changed. Except things have changed. I had changed. Yet you were the same. The same insecurities, the same worries, the same level of uncertainty. I was disappointed that it almost felt like you were letting yourself be let behind, like a secondary character in her own motion picture, like a racer who hears the start but stays at the line while watching everybody beside her take off. I felt like I was pausing to turn around, and help you up, and I was resentful of that. Because I wanted to be running. I didn’t want to be there.
I had one of my moods that night. We had all just been playing; you, me, him, and some of my housemates. I was playing with my coworkers, and it was when S. had texted me, saying, “Happy birthday, Grace. Did you do fun things today?” that I felt it coming. I just quietly left, without saying anything, and climbed to the roof of our apartment complex.
The wind had been chilly. The city lights flickered in the distance. I didn’t know which way was downtown Los Angeles. I had no idea. I felt so alone and small, which is what I always seek out when I climb to these places alone. Solace. I wondered how long it would take for you and him to notice that I was gone.
I ignored it.
I ignored it.
I was satisfied. Then, I heard you two come out and call my name. You two came onto the roof even, and I remember freezing when I heard him shout for me. I said nothing. I was sure you two would find me, and I panicked, thinking of what to say.
You two had waited for a bit, and then I heard the door close. I let out a sigh of relief. But I was sad.
I had been doing this ever since I was a kid, playing this cruel and twisted sort of hide and seek. Whenever I was in one of my moods, where I felt like disappearing, I’d hide. And nobody ever finding me was proof, evidence, that it wouldn’t make a difference in the world if I disappeared. There was no significance to my existence, whether it was a thermodynamic miracle or not. I’m sure Heisenberg would have been able to predict me had he been given more time, Dr. Manhattan. There’s nobody to take my hand, dry my tears, and take me home. I’ve been told it’s a terrifying habit, this inkling of mine to always seek out high buildings whenever I’m feeling sad. But it’s comforting. I imagine myself like Dr. Manhattan on Mars, watching Earth from afar. Earth sits in the distance like the moon, and somewhere on its indistinguishable surface, I am there. A tiny existence. The more like ants I can make the world around me be, the more comfort I feel. I always drive to Mount Washington when I’m in this mood at school, and watch the city from a distance. I relish that feeling – that feeling of being insignificant.
But when that door closed, I felt disappointed. To be honest, every time I play this silly game, I have hope. Hope that somebody will find me. Hope that somebody will open those doors, and then also climb onto the roof and find me there. Hope that I’d be saved. There was no savior to seek me this time, and relieve me of my loneliness. I remember I called W., and he had picked up. I don’t even remember what I had said to him. It had been comforting. I fell asleep on the roof that night, and that was the end of my twenty-first birthday. When I awoke, I was chilly. I climbed back down and into my room to find you on the couch.
I had apologized. You told me it was fine. You told me you had been worried. I apologized.
The atmosphere wasn’t right. But, I went to bed.
I don’t remember much else of the trip. There was certainly at least another thing I had felt a twang of annoyance at, and we didn’t talk much afterwards. More than anything, I remember this sense of unraveling that began during that visit, and a sense of unraveling that I couldn’t stop. I was helpless to it. Every time I thought of you, I thought of an unraveling ball of yarn – much like the time I had been walking back to the apartment from the office after holding armfuls of yarn and had dropped one. Except, when I retraced my steps, no matter how far back I went, I’d never find it. It was gone. It wasn’t where I had left it.
To be honest, birthdays have always been a sensitive time for me. To be honest, looking back, there hasn’t been a birthday that I can remember where I didn’t cry at night, when the room was closed, the candles had been blown, and I was alone in my bed. I remember, back in elementary school, I had always copied my best friend’s birthday party. She got annoyed at it one time and had confronted me, but what could I say? I remember attending her parties and having so much fun. Everybody was there, all of my friends, and we’d smile and laugh and I would be so happy. So of course, I’d always want the same thing for my birthday. For everybody to come and have fun.
Every year, nobody would come. Only V. would show up, the neighbor that you all had hated because she had acne in fifth grade. Laser tag, a pool party – they weren’t meant for parties of two. Looking back, I realize my parents had tried so hard. When I said I wanted a certain venue, they’d always agree. They would not only always get me a cake, but they’d also get me a balloon and a birthday card, signed by the two of them with goofy cats drawn by them both (my mom’s would always be carefully drawn and anatomically accurate, while my dad’s was always a bit of a guess as to exactly what it was). It would always be a huge balloon, too, and I’d watch it for days after my birthday sink and wrinkle in a corner. It reminds me of this experiment I remember reading about in The First Cell, by Azra Raza. Peto’s paradox came from the observation that, while it would seem to make sense that larger organism size should correlate with increased cancer rate (and indeed, humans have cancer more commonly than mice, cats, or dogs), but whales and elephants, which are much larger than humans, rarely have cancer at all. They found that elephants had a slightly different “always-on” expression of p53 antigens, and when they tried to mimic this in mice, they found that while the mice had increased tumor suppression ability, they also showed signs of premature aging. Perhaps my balloon got mixed up as a mouse in one of those experiments.
I mentioned this to my parents lately, and my father mentioned how he had noticed, and he had talked to my mother about it. How I seemed to have such little self-confidence as a child. I said nothing, but it had surprised me to hear it. And it had made me a little bit sad. So they had noticed, huh.
I remember when my birthday came when I was dating my first boyfriend, he was away on vacation. I remember when I was dating my college boyfriend, when my birthday came around, I had gotten upset at him about something silly and he hadn’t talked to me the entire day. Not because he was angry or spiteful, but because that was just how he was. Whenever I was sad, he’d avoid talking to me, because he didn’t know what to say. But regardless, I spent my birthday lonely as well.
To be honest K., I had an amazing summer, but also one of my sadder ones, too. I wasn’t myself that summer. I had never told you because, and looking back it doesn’t really make sense to me why, but I didn’t know how to express myself. I felt that you wouldn’t empathize with me or understand. But I cried a lot. There were times that I felt so worthless and second-hand, but I didn’t know how to tell you because I was irritated with myself and my own emotions. Yes, it was about a boy. Silly, right? But what was sillier was to never tell you. I told you everything was alright. But that weekend, I was sad, because he was sick, and he couldn’t spend the weekend with me. And then he was working on a game jam. So clearly, it wasn’t about him being sick, but because he didn’t care about me.
All I had ever wanted was a birthday not spent alone, and with people who cared about me.
But, you were there. You cared about me. I regret that. I was annoyed. Maybe there were even good reasons as to why I was annoyed. But that wasn’t fair of me. I know you cared about me. Maybe that was the guilt I had felt when I had climbed down off the roof and returned to my room, and you had told me you were worried. I flashed back to my seventh grade self, the moment I became “shrockers”, and cringed.
You know, K., I’ve always had problems making friends with other girls. Looking back, my friends in elementary school were probably pretty terrible. They were never cruel to me, or mean, but I was never their first thought. While to so many of them, I was their first friend, that girl who first welcomes you when you’re new to sit with me at a table, I would quickly fade to the background. Like a starter NPC. I was talking to the person who ran the Denewb program at Riot Games, a sort of orientation for new hirees, and when I told him that I felt like I could understand and empathize a bit with his feelings, I meant it. But when everything which had happened in my childhood had happened, none of them were there for me. I was always playing a game of hide and seek in my life, but the seekers had forgotten what they were doing and moved on to something more fun. But I was left there, waiting.
You truly were my first ever friend. I respected you. You don’t even remember disagreeing with me in AP Lang, but I remember it. I remember the annoyance, the insistence that I was right, and probably if I told you the full thing that we had been discussing, you’d probably tell me again, just as adamantly as you did back then: “I see your point. But I still think what I think. So I still disagree with you.” You tempered me. You gave me an appropriate amount of shit. You’d be silly with me. Do you remember us stretching the rubber band for our balsa wood planes in Wright Stuff across the entire lecture hall? Do you remember screaming when I threatened to let go? And then, do you remember how much we laughed at ourselves when we realized we were supposed to cut the rubber band into appropriate sized pieces, and then stretch them out?
Do you remember the time that you had forgotten the cheat sheet for Cell Biology at Regionals, and when the test proctor told us we couldn’t go and get it, we took it anyways, giggling the entire time (and frequently earning a glare from the proctor for being too loud), and still winning first place? Smurfing. If I said that to you now, you’d probably ask what I meant by that, and I’d explain. You had listened to my StarCraft story, and you would sometimes play games with me. You might now play games with other people, but your League of Legends summoner name is something I can always look at and proudly say, hey, I made that! I picked that for you, that silly portmanteau of our names.
Do you remember sitting in Dr. F.’s room after school, talking with her about life, dreams, the news, anything that came to our minds? She loved us. I loved her. I know you did, too. I still remember asking her to teach me about reagent tests for the Science Olympiad Invitational, and periodically popping back in to ask her if she remembered my name. I was proud, and I was gutsy. A little bit cheeky, too.
Do you remember me taunting you about morning wood (the wood from the “morning plant”), and us laughing non-stop in A.’s basement with G. and Y. making planes last minute for Wright Stuff? I still have the pictures of me using his neck adjustment brace. And, do you remember the time we put the adhesive on a styrofoam plate and it just ate straight through? We were horrified, and just kept laughing. Yes, I remember how you had told me to wind the plane more at States, and I had hesitated, fearful that it would break, and we both agreed to take my side and play it safe. The plane dropped out of the air when it was still soaring, clearly just under-wound. We got third place. You never let me live that down. I know. You were right.
You were there when B. and I got back together, and there when it ended. Gucci boy. DNA and peaches. You’d tease me endlessly about anybody who apparently had a crush on me. I’d laugh. Do you remember that conversation we had junior year, after the PSAT and when we found ourselves spending nights texting each other?
We were talking about how we had grown so close in so short a time. We were just the person that the other had needed at that time in our lives, we had mused. And so that was it. How our friendship had started. The right place at the right time, and the right person. It’s almost romantic, looking back at it. And somewhere along the way, I really started to care for you. Proof that Grace Yu has a heart – it’s in you. Of all the people in my life who have come and gone, you’ve always stayed constant. I am thankful for that. I’m appreciative for that.
All of the times we went out and I’d give you advice, I hope it actually comforted you. But maybe it didn’t. I know that sometimes hearing advice can just feel overwhelming when it isn’t welcome. So, more than all of the suggestions of where to apply, what to put on your resume, hackathons to attend, or technologies to learn, I wish that you could understand one thing I wanted to tell you: it’s alright to go at your own pace. Don’t look around you. Don’t look where others are. It doesn’t matter if you’ve switched majors multiple times, or that there have been setbacks along the way. For the one person in this world that the mighty Grace Yu has ever considered her true friend, you’re so much more than that. This is nothing. This is silly. I know you’ve lost your confidence. But, more than anybody in this world K., I really believe in you. I’m rooting for you.
So don’t worry about what pace you’re taking life at. Don’t worry about feeling behind. Just keep moving, K. You’ll get to where you want. And there’s nothing wrong with having fun along the way.
When I realized I forgot your birthday two days ago, it burned in my mind because I suppose that’s it. That’s the sign. The fact that you didn’t cross my mind as much as you used to; years before, Thanksgiving had always meant you. It meant your birthday was coming. I welcomed that. Before you, Thanksgiving was when my grandmother had first been admitted to the ICU and then left for treatment at Texas at the Mayo Clinic, because the doctors here said they could do nothing else to help her. You made my Thanksgivings so much happier and more special – it’s just the beginning of the golden fields reminding me of golden hair for this fox. There’s a full set of multiple years of memories we’ve had to make the world more special to me. I feel sad realizing they’ve faded.
But I suppose that’s alright. I know you’ve felt it as well, that we’ve drifted apart. And that’s okay. It isn’t that we are leaving each other behind, I think. Our paths are just diverging. I hope you’ve watched some fun Korean dramas this break. I just watched Hotel Del Luna in one sitting – I think you had recommended it to me, but honestly, I forget, and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. I remember hearing about some idol in Monsta X leave, and remembered it was the one that you really liked. The one you sent me while I was at work, and I opened my phone just to a picture of a massively muscular and handsome Korean man, and immediately closed it in embarrassment in case my coworker had spotted me (and we later laughed about this over the phone). I hope you and your father didn’t bicker that much – I know you two haven’t been seeing eye-to-eye more recently, but I also know you care about him a lot. I remember that being something that struck me when we first became close, which was that when I once was ranting to you about something my father had done to upset me, you pointed out that it was probably because he cared a lot about me. You could always see the other side. I respected you a lot in that moment. It’s probably why I could always see you being a judge, K. But if I had met with you this Thanksgiving break, I would have also asked you how he’s doing. I hope he’s in good health.
I hope you take care, K. I’m still judging you for not continuing to weight lift when you went back to school. (It’s not too late to start again.)
I hope you had a good birthday. I hope you do well in life. Have more confidence in yourself.