Jiaqi Kang explores the formation of self-awareness through two childhood friends who drift apart.
Part of The Stakes of Naming, a series that asks an array of writers and artists what they need to say to live.
More than 40% of the people living in Geneva, the “capital of peace,” are foreign-born. Yet, growing up, it was impossible to teach anyone how to say my name.
Sunita fetched a cup of water from her kitchen and carried it back to the playground, emptied it out onto the swing. The water puddled in the grooves of the hard plastic seat. She pushed the chain links, flipped the swing seat upside down and shook it. Still tiny smudges of blackfly clung to the yellow.
She was wearing a cadmium sundress that used to belong to her sister, with embroidered little daisies dotted around the skirt. The flies drifted in and out of the ruched folds across her chest like they were looking for somewhere to burrow.
It was the summer after Sunita’s family moved to the neighbourhood. She’d arrived in Geneva in the middle of the school year. Her French wasn’t that good at first, but by the time summer came, she was fluent. That was how easy it was for little kids to learn; it had been the same for her classmate, Wing, who lived two doors down. At school they hadn’t spoken, but now Wing seemed to always be nearby, reading a book on the picnic table behind the swing set or emerging from behind a car in some driveway, her greasy hair falling into her eyes even as she swept them aside to give Sunita a perhaps too-intense stare. In the long stretches of dead time that they ended up spending together during that school holiday, the most important thing they learned was how to open YouTube on Wing’s family computer and type avril lavigne into the search bar. Sometimes they jumped up and down and screamed arbitrary syllables in time to the music, but when it was too hot to move, one of them sank into the computer chair, bare skin sticking to the pleather, while the other spun her around slowly, like a microwave.
Mostly they were outdoors, where, as long as they kept their voices down, nobody listened in on them. The kids in the other houses never came out to the playground when they were there, so they had it all to themselves: the swing set, the slide, the picnic table, the football goals with big holes in the net, and the parched pale grass.
At dusk, all sorts of bugs would come out and they had tried different methods of getting rid of them. After Sunita washed the swing set, Wing reached out to wipe off droplets of tap water; the wet seeped into her palms, but still the blackflies refused to go away, so she resorted to what they always did when their options ran out. She squashed them with her thumb and then wiped her hands on her clothes.
Sunita pushed Wing on the swing, made her go higher and higher. Wing bit the inside of her cheeks so she wouldn’t scream. They played a game they’d made up together, where they kicked off their flip-flops just as the swing took them to the highest possible point in the air and measured who had thrown the farthest. It was called lance-chaussures. They were afraid to throw their shoes too far, lest they had to approach the tree at the end of the playground to retrieve them. One of them had told the other that the tree’s purple leaves were home to insects with pincers that latched onto people’s ears and refused to let go, bruised the ear-flesh, and bled them dry. Pince-oreilles. Neither of them fully believed in it, but just in case, they kept their distance.
When it got to nine or ten, they became hungry enough to stop by one of their houses for lukewarm leftovers, the other members of their families stepping around them or having long gone to bed. At Sunita’s house, there was a dome-shaped mesh cover that her mother cast over the dishes to protect them from bugs. It opened and shut like an umbrella, and Wing was fascinated by its mechanism, but too polite to touch it herself. She stood by and watched as Sunita snapped it shut and tossed it aside in a gesture Wing couldn’t help but feel was brusque.
After a few weeks of being in each other’s company during every waking hour, they started begging their parents to let them have a sleepover. Lying side by side on Sunita’s big bed or on the floor in Wing’s attic with all the blankets forsaken in the heat, they would whisper random words to one another and dissolve into fits of giggles. One night, they kept saying kingfisher, martin-pêcheur. Who was Martin, what was he fishing for? Why did such a beautiful bird—pictures of which were printed on the glossy encyclopaedia that Sunita had received for her birthday some months ago—have such an ill-fitting name? It wasn’t actually funny, but Wing found that when she stopped laughing, the silence would allow Sunita to fall asleep without her.
The next morning, they went downstairs and found Wing’s house empty. Her parents had gone grocery shopping, they learned from a note. They had cereal with cola for breakfast and then lay down on the couch and watched DVDs. Sunita didn’t like Ultraman because she couldn’t understand it. She said the Canto dub sounded like monkey noises. Well, Wing shot back, your house smells like curry. Your face is flat as a pancake, Sunita said. Wing grabbed her ponytail and pulled. Sunita kicked Wing in the gut and she fell onto the floor, hitting her funny bone against the coffee table. Tears rolled down Sunita’s cheeks, which was shocking to Wing. Arrête, she said, but Sunita wouldn’t. She went home, and later when Wing rang the bell, it was Sunita’s sister who answered. She said Sunita didn’t want to play with her anymore.
Wing went back to her room and threw herself onto the bed, burying her face in the pillow. She told herself: Elle me hait. In order to pronounce that word, she had to really feel the H aspiré in her stomach, a pinching and pushing out of the breath. She didn’t yet know how to spell it, only how much it hurt to say.
For two weeks Wing avoided Sunita. She started spending all her time at the dining table, reading the paperback copy of The Little Prince with black-and-white illustrations that her mother’s colleague had given her last Christmas and talking to herself. Ce qui est important, ça ne se voit pas, said the prince. Bien sûr, replied Sain-teg-zu-pé-ry. The most-viewed webpage on the computer, which Wing now browsed alone, was Avril Lavigne – Keep Holding On – paroles français. In evenings, her parents came home to see that she had already put on the rice cooker and were mystified, but didn’t pry, even though she wished they would.
It was only on the first day back at school that Wing found out Sunita had, at some point during their separation, cut her hair drastically short. Wing turned a corner on her way to the new classroom and came upon Sunita surrounded by three or four other girls. Sunita ran her fingers through her silky bob and let the scent of her hair oil waft out into Wing’s nostrils. Said loudly that she’d donated her braid to a charity that made wigs for children with cancer. Wing didn’t know what cancer was, only that what Sunita did had been a good thing. She felt an immense sadness because she understood that she, unlike Sunita, was selfish. Égoïste. In Wing’s mind, the word had the same root as escargot. She recalled how downcast she’d been without Sunita in those final weeks of summer, trudging through the long days like a snail—slow, slimy, and with a hunched back.
Sunita noticed Wing and walked up to her. She stuck out her hand. Wing took it.
On se fait la paix? she asked.
It was everything Wing had hoped for, so she couldn’t account for the numb feeling in her tongue and the way her skin began to itch. She wanted to take her hand away, but instead she squeezed Sunita hard and said, D’acc.
Sunita was wearing a buttercup-coloured t-shirt that said Flower Power! on it. Even though the air had recently turned brisk and Wing was bundled up in a puffer jacket that her mother had dusted off for her that morning, Wing noticed one persevering insect stuck to Sunita’s shoulder, near her collarbone where Sunita couldn’t see. She must have picked it up on her way to school, Wing thought, through the thick row of trees that lined one of the nearby streets. Wing was about to point it out to her when it flew onto a strand of her hair and began to climb.
Years later, Wing would still be thinking about this moment. About how to get her hair to fall heavy like that. The blackfly inched toward Sunita’s face and Wing thought about the idea that people unknowingly ate spiders in their sleep all the time, up to several a year. How oddly nice the idea sounded, like making a friend. Just then the school bell rang, eight tones arranged in a call-and-response. Sunita turned her head, and the blackfly was gone.
Jiaqi Kang is a doctoral student in art history at Oxford University and the founding editor-in-chief of Sine Theta, an international, print-based creative arts magazine for the Sino diaspora. They are the winner of The White Review Short Story Prize 2022. Originally from Geneva, Switzerland, they are based in Oxford, UK.
Banner illustration: Jocelin Kee.
- Poetry & Fiction
- Fri, 13 Oct 2023