Jonah Sheen Tan
Last year, a 40-year-old woman was pushed onto an oncoming subway train in New York and died. As a result of her death, new stations were birthed everywhere. Because they looked identical to the old ones, however, I sometimes mixed them up. When I slipped into these new stations, wrinkled fabric-ridges of space-time, things looked different. There, trains were 85,000lbs going 20mph. Tracks had an electric third rail that killed on contact. My mother had texted me, frantic thumbs over keyboard a world away, this is asian hate crime again…be careful it could happen to u. I frequently stood back-against-pillar, though sometimes there weren’t any. In those cases, I wordlessly wedged myself within a group of strangers — any group — so snugly for comfort that I wished I would melt away in the interstices, camouflage willing hard armor over me, so that no one could topple what didn’t exist.
That summer, when I crossed the Pacific for home, I got a new bag. It was sturdy and erect, with a broad spine and a mean, composed confidence. When the shoulder straps came down, it clung low and tight across my body, strung me up like a marionette, welded its hard, unyielding frame to my back. It made a pillar out of me. The first time I tried it on, I’d neglected to wear a shirt. Its tactical, ballistic webbing, aggressively stitched, shaved skin till the raw peeked out. Still, the bag dared me to keep it on. So I did, and though shirts and jackets pilled and bruised under its weight, it kept me safe.
Strange things started to happen—the bag spoke. It spoke to the security guard in Queens that gruffed nice bag but with such a twinkle of recognition that what he must have meant was that it’s nice to meet you; it spoke to the man at lunch who flashed his bag and exclaimed hey I served too; it even spoke to my seatmate in Literature 101 who, once silent, now poured out to me memories from my deployment in Germany. When the bag spoke for me, it spun out a thread, so far and wide that even though home lay halfway across the world, for a moment it tangled me into a safe communion with them, and I let the pillar crumble.
Come winter, my partner and I went to Portland, Maine for the first time. At the corner of Middle and Hampshire streets, we found a nook that served us mee goreng—noodles we’d had growing up. I complained endlessly about how the sambal wasn’t authentic, but it was a ruse, the sort of happy complaint that stood in for a joy so comforting that words would always be foreign. In front of us, the windows were high and broad, and the night glowed with soft pools of yellow.
Then a man in a red cap and red hoodie on the other side of the restaurant’s window started punching. He locked eyes with us when the punching started, and we waited for it to stop, but it never did. The interesting thing about being punched at through a window is how hate is on full display. I knew he hated us from the way he writhed and the way he pointed to the door mouthing for me to get the fuck out and I hated him too. Not for punching at us, but for doing it when we were defenseless—where I was vulnerable, mid-mouth through mee goreng, propped up in front of the high and broad windows. I hated him not for his ignorance, but because he knew: knew that though they served us our food and ate alongside us, they were not of us. In that moment, I wanted to punch him back, so that we wouldn’t be so different after all. When we were hastily moved away from the windows, I propped my bag on the table—a protective pillar, and prayed it would speak.
Many, many weeks later, I occasionally forgot anyone had died by subway. On those days, I found my way back to the old stations, where trains ran smoothly and everything was quiet. There, I remembered that he, too, was different. I saw through his red hoodie the same way I saw through my webbed, green bag. I saw us naked and bare, watching our backs. Through the window, I wished I could tell him: your station is right around the corner.
Jonah Sheen Tan is a fresh graduate of Columbia University who hails from Singapore. His writing has appeared in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine.