The Times

By Ashley Chang '23

Illustration by Jocelyn Salim


I’m sitting on the plasticky floor of the basketball court. My shoes are too small for my feet—always, my toes jut out from those holes I poked into them two weeks ago. And I’m crying. Of course, I’m looking around the basketball court, at the miniature trees dotting its edge, and am hoping no one is hiding behind. But also I’m wiping my face, again and again, and I try to squeeze my eyes shut. Something inside and outside of me burns and I continue to rub my eyes.

An exhale. I brush my hands against my purple sweatpants and shudder.

“God, why can’t—”

A pause. I look around me one more time, hoping that no one understands English.

“God, why don’t I have any friends?”

And it’s like I’m in fourth grade again. I’m walking up to my elementary school gate, hiding away from my classmates. My mom side-eyes me, and I squeeze her arm.

“They’re gonna hate me,” I say.

“They’re gonna hate me because I should have left. I said I was going back to America, but we came back. I don’t know if—”

The final word hangs in the air, and I stare across the street, at the street vendor who always sells pink erasers and reddish neckties that smell like salmon.

“Not me, I don’t know. I don’t think they want me,” I say, and my Mom furrows her eyebrows at me. I cling on to my backpack straps and I shake them a little.

***

Sounds. On the TV and on my phone. Buzzes that stretch on for infinity, words that blur in and out and it all has one term. “Coronavirus” like there’s no other virus, problems like we’re here and now, and I can’t stand the words. I keep saying them, again and again and again. But I’m afraid.

I sit down in my dorm lounge with Melanie and Haley, and I slam my hands against its wooden table.

“They can’t—we shouldn’t—I don’t wanna—go back. Online schools sucks. I did it in China, did you know my GPA dropped .7?” I’m swirling my hands this time, big mad clouds, and I’m staring at their eyes, both of theirs, all at once, lasering in my truth, feeling the buzzes that aren’t audible but are still visible.

“I refuse. They can’t. But what if they do—I don’t want to go home. I don’t have friends at home. I mean, I do, but it’s like I’ve only lived there two years. I just, I just.” And then I just sit there, and it’s absolutely quiet for once, but I don’t want it to be. I want to yell, I want to fight. I want to pray. I want to sing. I don’t want it to be quiet, but it is, and all I can do is fidget and pull at my Virginia Girl State sweater one more time, wondering what color green becomes when it’s faded. I’ve had this sweater for a year and yet still.

“Wow,” Haley says, and I stare at the ceiling, as if I could see the word there. And I don’t know, maybe I prayed.

***

Mom and I fight. I throw up my hands.

I say, “Well why does it feel like sometimes God is not enough?”

I chew on my beef jerky. We both sigh.

***

The basketball court:

I’m so short. 5’2”. We bought a new pair of shoes, my Dad finally admitting that I

may need a fit in wides. I keep scrambling here and there. Missing. Always missing.

Dad shoots a clear shot, a good one, another one! I stare as I watch our basketball hoop shudder a little, and I wonder if the whole thing will fall down. I clutch my fingers, and Dad runs up from behind and taps my shoulder.

“Want to practice?” he asks.

“Sure,” I say.

***

Dad and I are driving up to Brown, for the freshman move-in. We’re listening to the book of Esther, that part where Mordecai gives the Israelites all these instructions for murder. Dad plays the tape again. And I widen my eyes. Then again.

I steal the aux and play a Taylor Swift song. Dad returns us to the same verse. And then the next.

I stare at the parts of my Dad’s hair that even dye can’t stop from being white. Dad’s jaw starts to move.

“I play this because I think it’s important,” he says.

The tape plays again. Then one more time.

***

At 8 AM I finish reading 1 Samuel. Saul dies.

The night before I asked my Dad a key question.

“The medium: how come she could talk to Samuel?”

We’re sitting in my living room, and I’m laying on the couch. Dad looks up at me from the floor.

“Satan gives people power too.”

***

At home, I’ve developed a routine. Comic books, manga, television, and like 2 hours tops of homework. And then some more TV. All the good shows have run out, but the bad-CGI action series spawn forever.

On one day and also on many, Dad knocks on my door. He’s wearing a suitcoat from his Zoom presentation outfit. I stare at his crocs, his “slippers.”

“Ashley,” he says. I stare at his face, and the ridges that form at the top of his eyebrows, sharp but also soft at once.

“Do you know I’m happier now?” he says.

“Oh,” I say. I spin my chair around and close my laptop screen.

“You’re here Ashley,” he says. “I’m happy that you’re here.”

And there’s so much doubt—the sadness that enters and tries to rust. But love—I can’t put a finger on it. That’s why it’s, well.

***

My Mom and I talk for twenty minutes. Then an hour. Then we’re driving to pick up food from Bojangles but the words—they don’t. It’s just that the answer is almost, not ever, not really, there.

“You’re going to stay home and like in two months it’s gonna all blow up. Remember Beijing?” Mom says, and I pick up my crispy chicken salad with two extra ranch packs. I pause for a moment, squeezing out as much ranch as I can. Mom holds out her hand to me so that I can hand her a fry. I close the salad lid and shake it a little before turning my head.

“I think I’ll be okay,” I say. We’re both chewing at this point, so it’s a weird, disjointed kind of silent. Mouth half full, Mom mutters.

“Are Ya Shure?”

On the drive home we catch all the green lights.

***

I read the Bible and realize something.


When Lazarus died, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death,” but.


Jesus wept.


And maybe sometimes I sit on the floor and cry. And I guess, I know, but there are times.


***

Before I leave for college, I ask my twelve-year-brother a somewhat backhanded question.


“Are you going to miss me?”


We’re sitting in my bedroom, me on the ground and him on the couch my parents crammed in between my desk and bed. He throws a ping-pong ball up in the air, one, two, three, times, and then a little higher, jumping up to grab it.


“No,” he says. We pause. It’s like the ping-pong ball is frozen mid-air. Then he sighs.


“I’m in denial,” he says, “I will never miss you.”


When he comes to visit me in college, he kicks his soccer ball round and round the hotel room, ranting about school life while I smile, nod, and play Candy Crush.

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