Yesterday, I had the honor and privilege of doing a reading at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop. My friend Eileen curated the event, which was about using fortune cookie slips as writing prompts. I got to share a stage with several incredibly talented, inspiring, humbling Asian-American writers (including Eileen herself)! Here is the short story I wrote for the occasion.
What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.
The Milky Way sprawled before us, dazzling and stupefying in its unclouded splendor, spliced with graceful arcs of silver and amber, something I’d always assumed was Photoshopped into the pictures online. All around, uncountable stars studded the sky, so many, an incredibly vast canopy of lights cast from tree to tree. I was stunned speechless. I had never seen anything like it before. In the Jersey suburbs, a four-hour drive and thirty-minute hike away, we were lucky to make out the Big Dipper some nights.
I pulled the flask from my backpack, took a sip of scotch, and gave it to you. We sat on a boulder and drank in silence for some time, still staring in rapture at the heavens, only our arms moving to pass the liquor back and forth. Eyes drinking in the ancient, distant lights above. Hearts swollen and swimming in an incomprehensible ache.
You turned to me and said, “Let me tell you a creation story.”
I asked, “Is it going to be about how we’re all made of stardust?”
You laughed and cleared your throat. It was our first real getaway together, just the two of us, and you wanted to commemorate it in your special way.
“In the beginning, there was a void. Slowly, ever so slowly, consciousness began to collect like dust mites in forgotten corners. These formed the first souls of the universe.”
You wove a fantastic tale of consciousness, awareness, questioning. Eons of scattershot cosmic journeys, stars being forged, worlds fashioned, galaxies architected. A cataclysmic war that splintered and shattered the souls into innumerable tiny pieces. You reinvented the Titans’ legend with a science-fiction twist and your own imaginative charm. You always had such a gift for harnessing everything you were seeing, facing, feeling, and channeling it into a beautiful, impromptu story, the way the subconscious mind manufactures dreams. And I clung to your every mellifluous word.
“We’re all born with a shard of one of the original souls within us,” you said. “When you find a friend, it’s someone else with a piece of the same soul.”
You winked and had another drink, signaling the end of the tale. I clapped in appreciation. You bounced to your feet, bowing dramatically, always the thespian. I took your hand in mine and pulled you into me, your mouth to mine.
One Friday morning, I was three time zones behind when a train derailed, injuring forty-three passengers and killing one. Your sister left me a bunch of text messages several hours later, when they cleared through the wreckage and confirmed your identity. I didn’t answer her at first because I was in customer meetings. Later, it was because I didn’t believe her.
I was convinced I would have felt something if it were true. I would have jolted awake at 4:12 a.m. with a visceral pain, shivering in a cold sweat, heart racing to burst out of my ribcage, head splitting open with urgency and alarm. You and I always knew what the other was thinking, where we wanted to go, how to make each other bloom like a sun-kissed flower, when to be playful and silent and fierce and tender. We were born of the same soul. Mine would have shrieked in fucking anguish when yours disappeared. Should have.
Your sister wrote, “I know he meant a lot to you.” That was the most consolation I was going to get from anyone. She didn’t know the half of it. Nobody else from your family contacted me, too sunken in their grief to care about some male roommate who was rarely there when they visited. My parents lived on the other side of the planet, and had only met you once. We never knew how to tell anyone, though our closest friends probably suspected. Part of us feared parental disappointment, shrank away from stern ancestral gazes. It also never seemed worth a fuss. This was our dark, guilty, thrilling, enchanting secret.
After my business trip, I took the redeye back to New Jersey in a static haze. When I arrived home, over twenty-four hours had passed since you left. I stood frozen by the front door, dully wondering where your shoes were. Where your stupid, falling-apart messenger bag was. Why it was so quiet. How you would ever be able to spin this into a story.
I trudged into the bedroom and saw the bed still neatly made, something only you would do because I never bothered with it. I collapsed on top of the sheets and closed my eyes.
The following year, I went back to the place where we had our first romantic vacation. It started raining about an hour into the drive, and continued even as I pulled into the state park hours later. I was set on doing this today, though. Halfway through the hike, miraculously, the rain stopped. By the time I relocated our old rock, the clouds had dissipated, and the stars greeted me in full blazing glory, as they did three years ago. Almost as if you had reached across the impossible distance and pulled some strings to come say hello.
I sat down and pulled the flask from my backpack. I raised it over my head momentarily—heart swollen and aching again, thicker and heavier this time—and brought it to my lips. Then I started reading this letter to you, the only way I knew how to express everything I couldn’t talk about with anyone else. I was never much of a storyteller, but I figured, might as well try to return the favor at least once, right?
When I was done, there was no cooling breeze stirring in the depths of my heart. There was no twinkling formation in the skies above, no whisper on the wind that resembled my name. But it did feel cathartic, in a way, to sit my little soul shard down and issue you words in the same spot where yours once did the same for me. I know you made up the creation story that day, but to me it was as valid and true as any other, and did a far better job of explaining us. I miss you so much, old friend.