Pei looks out of her window at the third floor, trying not to squint because it would make her look as if she were afraid and lost, when in truth she’s just startled. Everything is so bright and cold. Even the grey asphalt looks surprisingly vivid. Winter had been much subtler, but cheerier, in her hometown. Here, everything is so bright. Too bright. It blinds her naked eyes. Like a damn set straight off a cheesy flick, she says inwardly.
A strange city. An even stranger view. A stranger looking back at her from the dull, vague reflection on the glass window. Nowadays, Pei rarely feels normal. But, being her usual indifferent self, she hardly worries about this. Of course, it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t think about it.
Exhaling soundly, Pei turns around and sits down on the brass-colored carpet, her palms resting on the coarse fabric at both sides of her body. She looks around, trying to process everything around her. The one-room flat holds a queen-sized bed, a desk that stands to her hip, a night lamp, a TV, a beige sofa and a couple of other newly-bought furnishings. It’s too big and spacey for her, albeit only consisting of one room. Her room back home was bigger, but she shared it with her little sister, who had recently moved out.
This one is too much for her.
In the midst of thoughts, Pei brings her right hand to the outside of her nostrils, intending to scratch away a sudden, painful itch. This proves to be a bad decision a moment later, when she finds out that her fingers smell quite funny. Like damp jeans and lemon-scented aerosol. Must be the carpet, she muses in distaste.
But Pei does not like whining because it’s a useless thing to do, so she chooses to wipe her hands on her jeans and pretend that the musty yet sharp smell doesn’t make her want to vomit. Besides, there’s a bigger problem on her hands right now: this room. And everything it contains, basically. Of course, the fact that her dad chose this place for her explains a lot. He likes everything big and pricey.
In their hometown, they call him The Serpent, because he’s slick and sly. Personally, Pei thinks it doesn’t suit him. The snake is a composed, serene creature, only attacking when disturbed. Her dad is a performer. He smiles and laughs and says all the right things. He’s the best actor she’s ever seen. Most people don’t know how he really is. And those who actually do, don’t care. After all, he is very rich. Most people pretend to be blind when the rich do bad deeds.
The Serpent was born more than half a century ago. He does not know the precise date. He seldom speaks of his childhood, but Pei knows that his family kept moving and traveling all around the world. They ended up living in the States before his parents died in a train accident, which left The Serpent to strive for his six younger siblings. He started off as a clerk in a small office in New York, climbing his way up for years. Then he moved back to his homeland and started a very successful silk factory, which eventually resulted in the massive fortune. Now The Serpent doesn’t travel around anymore. He hates traveling because of the long flights. The plane gives him headaches.
Sometimes, Pei envies him. Not because of his wealth or greed, but his ability to adapt to his environment. Being a chameleon. He can talk to all different kinds of people as if they were old friends. Hell, he can manipulate all different kinds of people with his smooth talking.
Pei is different. She is tough as stone and impeccably cold. And unlike her father, Pei isn’t capable of being manipulative. Her father is built to fill and fit. She’s not.
And what am I built to? She asks herself. Endure?
It would’ve been better if Pei were like her sister, an obedient young woman who had recently gotten married to a good white collar worker, one of The Serpent’s trusted employees. Her sister reminds Pei of their late mother. Submissive and organized, like Chinese women in the old times. And once in awhile, Pei can’t help but wish that she could be just like her. The Serpent’s favorite child. The one who makes The Serpent smile and nod his head in approval.
But Pei is different. She really is. She is the odd one in the family. That is why she made a decision to move here in the first place. A decision that she is beginning to doubt.
Pei fought The Serpent just to be here. He hates the Western world. It’s a testimony, a reminder of his bitter younger days. But Pei was persistent and stubborn, as always. In the end, her father gave in, though less than happy.
Alright. Go. I’ll let you live there. Take off, you ungrateful kid. I’ve always known that you don’t belong here, he had said. Let’s just hope you don’t come crawling back to me in the end. If only your mother were still alive, what do you think she’d say? She’d probably cry over you, don’t you think?
She did not answer. She did not want to.
Pei gets up from her spot on the carpet and looks out of the window once again. The sky is getting darker, which means that dusk is getting near. Pei hears her stomach grumble and realizes that she is horribly hungry. She hasn’t eaten since eight o’clock in the morning. Her breakfast was a tart, green apple, a leftover from her plane ride two days ago. A Granny Smith that makes her stomach growl and beg for something that can make her feel more alive.
She wants to go downstairs and buy a loaf of warm bread. There’s a small, family-run bakery in front of the new apartment. But she keeps herself from doing it because she knows that seeing all those fancy breads with names as foreign as secret codes will make her long for a bowl of warm, white rice.
But she also knows that if she eats rice, she’ll vomit it out because of the distant memories its taste triggers.
Rice reminds her of the dinners with her father’s family at expensive restaurants back home: sitting round tables while the waitresses with their black hair in buns served them steaming food. And her small cousins. They were always chasing each other, running around the tables like the world were about to kiss them goodbye. And of course, there was her grandma, who kept asking when she planned to get married and start a family of her own.
When are you going to marry? she had asked.
No idea, Pei said to her.
I haven’t thought about it, Ah Ma.
Ah, Pei. The clock is ticking.
Pei cringes. That was exactly why she decided to move.
She wanted a new life, in a new country. A second chance in a place where no one knows the three syllables of her full name. She hoped they’d settle for Pei. Just Pei. And she hoped they’d be her friends.
A happy existence, that’s all she’s asking for.
As the sun begins to set, Pei walks away from the window. She takes off her shoes and throws herself onto the springy bed, her body creating small-scaled bounces and carving miniscule creases on the silken sheets. She closes her eyelids, creating an illusion that the whole world is bathed in black.
And as a stone-cold silence lulls Pei into sleep, she unchained her thoughts and let it go.
That night, she dreams of a poem she once wrote in high school.
A misunderstood sinner in a city where saints triumph.
A barbed wire among picket fences.
To be, or not to be?
The teacher gave it a B, but she framed it anyway.