My name, Peony, carries anger with it. Like the layered pink petals, I was always one to have overlapping thoughts and hidden emotions. For the longest time, I couldn’t understand why my mother gave me the name she did. She often told me the story of how I was born, pink and annoying. “You were not happy to leave my womb,” she would say, but I always turned my attention to something else and never thought twice about what she meant.
I realized only later that I was prone to tantrums and long bouts of pouting only because I was never able to express myself through words as a child. I learned young that the best way to communicate was by using the most innocent of objects to speak through: flowers and books. They were the items I genuinely cared for, consumed by my thin, dark hair and pale skin. Books about the ancient scientific origins of flowers and their Latin roots were piled high in the corner of my moldy room, just waiting to be thrown out. The broken spines and ripped pages made them appear beaten down and useless, but it was worth every ounce of adrenaline it took in me to steal them. In the tiny efficiency, I spent most of my time reading or sleeping.
I loved being intertwined with my old, dirty sheets. Nothing was ever clean; I didn’t know how to be. My mother often made the things around me organized and precise. She frequently tried to teach me the basics of being neat, but I never really got around to actually trying. Unlike my mother, I never strived to be better. My life was decided for me; I was put where I was set aside, and I was expected to grow but I never truly did. I shriveled in the dark corner waiting for sunlight. I never wanted to be such a disgrace but my destiny was set. I was bound for disappointment.
As a little girl my mother and I were a pair. She loved me and so did my father. He loved my mother and I so much he sacrificed himself for our “new beginning.” She and I came to America in hopes for a better life. It didn’t occur to us how rough it was going to be in a foreign country, but anything was better than being forced into slavery. The second grade was not easy, however, if you weren’t a white child originally from Florida. In my case, no one talked to me because of my thick accent, which accompanied my oval eye shape, and for what feeble meat I had left on my bones. I was the only Chinese girl forced to be an outcast because of what I was. For years I struggled to understand what I did wrong or what was wrong with me. It was never easy to make friends with my kind of background.
In my dingy efficiency, I always sat in my torn velvet green chair, the one my mother always sat in when she read me to sleep. I thought back on the times my mother and I struggled to keep this apartment and how cute she made it. The walls were once freshly painted white, with frames of my grandfather’s artwork that hung proudly. It smelled of the food that I actually liked to eat, Gong Bao Chicken and rice, a dish that my mother made for me when days too abysmal worked on my nerves. The dried chili filled the air and the fried peanuts added character to the fine walls of the apartment. It was where my native language was spoken in comfort and I wasn’t forced to pretend to be someone else. It was home.
Solace crept over me when I thought back to the memories of when she was around. How she would braid my hair and sing to me. She sang while she cleaned, cooked, even when she talked to me. It was her way of staying calm. She reminded me of a delicate waterlily: purity of the heart. She was my only friend until I met Matthew.
Matthew was a tall, light-haired boy with pale skin and slight acne on his cheeks. It was freshman year of high school. He became my only American friend throughout my high school years, and I cherished his friendship. He, too, had a liking for books on plants and other specimen found on earth. That’s how we met, at the public library, just a few blocks away from our school.
It was on my birthday and he stood in front of the empty wooden table where I was sitting.
“Can I join you?” he asked.
Shocked, I awkwardly nodded my head in agreement.
For a long hour we sat in silence. I watched him flip through a comic book and then through a book about the Plantae species. My eyes widened in fascination by the pictures on the pages, which were species of flowers I had never seen before. As he caught me looking, I quickly turned my head towards the book I was reading, furiously embarrassed.
“Look, it’s a Venus flytrap, a carnivorous plant. It’s found in subtropical wetlands on the East Coast of the United States, like us,” he said with a smile.
At first I had no idea what to do, so I stared at him waiting for another response. Blinking twice, I felt intrigued and uncomfortable at the same time.
“These things catch their prey. It says that they eat insects and arachnids. Cool, right? A plant that eats living things.”
I giggled at how funny he talked and at his enthusiasm towards the topic.
”Venus flytraps are interesting to think about.”
A sudden a rush of red ran towards the surface of my cheeks and I began to burry my face in my book.
“Don’t we go to the same school?” he asked. I began to suspect he was trying to
get my attention.
I looked at him in sudden recognition. “Yes, we have biology together for third period.”
He snapped his fingers and raised his eyebrows, “That’s it! I knew I’ve seen you around. What’s your name?”
I looked at him with my eyebrows pushed together, “Peony. Yours?” I glanced at the clock on the wall and realized that my mother was preparing a special dinner. I took in a deep breath and stood up rapidly gathering my bags of books. “I have to go but I will see you in biology.”
As I headed for the door he yelled, “The name’s Matthew. Why are you leaving?”
I looked back, replying, “My birthday dinner is tonight.”
Ever since that day I felt happier. I had talked to someone who didn’t think of me as a complete freak. I remember waiting in biology class to see him and how nervous I was to speak to him. Then the morning bell rang and he still wasn’t there. I sat alone, as usual, in the front row of the room. In the next instant, the door slammed open. It was Matthew. “Take a seat, Mr. Baxter. And stop being late to my class or next time it’s a detention.” The monotone teacher began to teach the class and Matthew sat down next to me, handing me a note. It read:
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PEONY.”
I smiled and mouthed the words, “Thank you.”
Years have passed since then, seeming as if they have gone by too fast. I was content to have my mother and my friend by my side; it was all I could want. Once I became a senior, though, I began to think about college. I had the perfect university in mind. I still remember the feeling of scrambling earth worms in my stomach at the thought of going someplace new. It was that night when I came home, a week before graduation, when my mother told me the news of her illness. I only remember blinking twice before crying the rest of the night. I frequently think back to that night when she lay next to me, rubbing my face gently with her nimble fingers as she sang to me to sleep.
The next morning, her broken words rang through my ears. All I could remember thinking about was how badly I needed to talk to someone. I waited outside of school in hopes to see Matthew rush in late, as always. Finally, I saw him drive up to school and park. The old, broken-down car made a squeaky noise as he closed his car door. He ran towards me in excitement, announcing. “Hey P, I need to tell you something,” from across the yard of freshly cut grass. I stared at him with dry, red eyes. Waiting for him to tell me his news, I sat still on the coral steps of the high school. Once he sat next to me, though, I began to cry on his boney shoulder. He hugged me tightly. “What’s the matter?” A look of concern covered his face.
“My mother has liver cancer,” I said. I slumped over, waiting for him to say something.
I remember venting for a while as he just sat there, silent, not knowing what to say or what to do. Finally, I dried my wet face. “So what was the news you needed to tell me?” I wished I had never asked.
“I’m gonna go study in Ireland,” he said sadly.
At that moment, I felt as though I had lost everything I had in this life. I recalled just staring at the gray sky, baffled by what was happening. Ever since then, I slowly became bitter and angry at the world for what it took from me. For days I didn’t answer his calls because of all the rage I felt. It only became stronger as time went on. I gave up on him. I couldn’t understand why I was so infuriated with him, but I couldn’t talk to him. My voicemail eventually stopped, notifications grew smaller and smaller, until I had nothing to check. He gave up, too.
I became miserable in my apartment, alone. I never followed through with college after my mother’s passing, nor did I follow through with anything else.
Destined to wilt in what I used to call home, this apartment became a nest, a dark and dismal atelier. The only joyous occasion was reading another book sent to my empty mail box. I created the habit of singing to myself whenever I felt the overwhelming urge to cry over how life could have been and what I’ve become mired in. My mom still sings to me in our apartment but it is only in my head, where I live up to my name, Peony.