Author: Siqi Liu
Grade: 11 at Naperville Central High School
1st place Live Arts Contest
Pictures in My Heart
As I walked home from school one dreary afternoon, the usual pool of black liquid and human waste sitting outside my apartment building caught my eye. There was a fresh green leaf that somehow got mixed in with the sewage. It was the size of a rose petal and as delicate as baby’s skin. Stooping down, I leaned closer to study its translucent veins.
“Kuai dian!” My grandmother called in Mandarin, urging me to hurry up. “It’s lunchtime!” I raised my head and peered at the sixth floor window, the one that belonged to our kitchen. She hated it when I was late for her carefully-prepared meals.
I looked back at the leaf, biting my lower lip with the vague sadness of a child. Something told me that it didn’t belong with the dirt and feces. It belonged on the top of a tree with all the other leaves, soaking up warm light and drinking clean dewdrops. It belonged to the splendor of the sun and the madness of rain.
But my backpack was getting heavy. “I’ll come back for you, my little leaf,” I whispered under my breath. Gnawing on my six-year-old nails, I ran up the staircase to go home.
Eight years later, I still had the bad habit of biting my nails. The staircase was darker and narrower than I remembered, which made me a little nervous. I took each step carefully, for the naked cement wore a layer of grime that made my shoes slip. I tried to remember if this was always how it had been. Did this wall have the red-crayon graffiti of an elephant when I used to live here? Were the windows always patched up with wooden boards?
On a few occasions my grandparents forgot to tell me that they were going to be out on errands. When I came home from school, I would be locked out of the apartment for up to hours. Those were the dreaded times. Dark, frightening stories that I had heard paralyzed me as I waited alone in the stairwell. I squeezed my eyes shut and thought of kidnappers who take children to faraway villages. I held my breath, listening for conmen with butcher knives who cut off little girls’ hands. I could never muster the courage to look behind me, remembering stories of robbers who strangle witnesses and bury their bodies.
Even now, as I climbed the last flight of stairs leading to my old home, I could feel an irrational urge to fear something intangible lurking in the musty air. Somewhere in the dark recesses of my memories, I recalled spooky stories that used to haunt me. The wave of raw, childish fear that seized me out of nowhere was deliciously intense. I haven’t outgrown my overactive imagination after all, I thought, smirking to myself. There was some comfort in that realization. It was proof that the little girl who used to live in this place still lived in me. I wasn’t so sure anymore, since I rarely hear her voice nowadays.
Thankfully, the sound of my mother and grandfather’s approaching footsteps reassured me that I was not alone. Instantly, the comfort of human company made the dark stairwell seem much more benign. When we arrived in front of the door of my childhood home—located on the sixth floor— my grandfather took the knob and thrust it against the splintered wood in a hard, swift motion. Its puke-green paint was almost faded to white, and a mist of dust quietly drifted down from above. The door opened with a croak, as if it were a piece of playground equipment that had forgotten what it was like to be touched by children.
The apartment was now a hollow shell of a home. It was shocking how small everything was. The bookshelves that had been giants in my memory only came up to my chest, and the living room was about the size of the master bedroom in our home in America. The walls were disappointingly white; the rainbows and dogs and words I had scrawled on the wallpaper had been purged so completely there was not a trace of color on the pallid surface.
“Woah, do you remember this?” my mother exclaimed, moving toward a glass panel that separated the kitchen and the living room. There were circular pieces of aqua-colored wallpaper that covered its surface, carefully arranged and pasted onto the glass. “I cut these pieces myself.” She scratched the glass with her nails. “I figured it would be cheaper than buying a whole sheet of wallpaper…”
As she reminisced, I tried to picture my mother as a young woman nearly twenty years ago. She and my father moved into this apartment when they were first married, and this was where I was born. Soon thereafter, they both left to work in the United States, and my grandparents moved in to take care of me. The first time I remember seeing my mother was when I was six years old—she had come to visit me as soon as she got her Green Card.
I told an acquaintance about this particular episode of my life at a dinner party a few months ago. He was the son of my mother’s coworker, so I felt obliged to carry on a conversation with him. The first words out of his mouth were, “Wow, it must’ve sucked to have your parents leave! Do you, like, hate them now?”
“You should go to sleep. It’s eleven o’clock,” my grandmother said, drying the dishes.
I stood on the little stool in front of the sink. The mirror above it was rectangular and dirt-speckled, and I peered into it at my reflection. “No,” I said defiantly. “I’m waiting for Mom.” Mom. The word sounded foreign, a title that belonged to somebody I didn’t know.
I picked up my toothbrush and squeezed a blob of toothpaste onto it. At that moment, there was a knock at the door.
“Hello, Dad!” The woman had a purse in one arm and a huge suitcase in the other. Her eyes scanned the room and found mine.
“Oh, my baby!” She quickly walked toward me and wrapped me in her arms. My face sank into her bosom. She was perfume and softness and everything I did not know.
The answer is, no, I do not hate my parents. I love them because they were brave enough to leave behind the only life they knew. I love them because they were willing to compromise their own happiness so that I could have a better life. I love them because although they missed my childhood, I could not imagine spending those wonderful seven years any other way.
I reached out a hand and touched the chalky walls. They were stripped of their skins, barren and raw. The childhood posters in my memories were gone as if they were never there. The windows, which I recalled as grand pieces of glass, were really no more than three feet in length.
My grandpa touched my shoulder. “Let’s go see the balcony.”
The balcony faced fabulous rolling hills and a factory in the distance, where a thin thread of white smoke stretched toward the bluest piece of sky. It was my favorite place as a child. Standing on the topmost floor of the apartment building—although it was only six floors tall—I had felt like I was at the top of the world. I was the pilot of a plane lifting off the runway, the captain of a ship sailing into the watery horizon, and the free-spirited adventurer standing at the edge of the greatest precipice on earth.
I had loved watching sunset from the balcony. As the great, orange gem fell into a dark pool somewhere beyond the horizon, I often had wondered what lay outside this cement patch of apartment buildings. The world in my childish eyes was unexplored, raw, and full of possibilities. Life itself was a curious thing to me. Now, with the sticky July breeze whispering against my ears, this same feeling stirred somewhere deep within my heart.
It was a typical summer afternoon that seemed to go on forever. The sweet air swelled with the scent of lavender and cicada’s chimes, and the sun was so hot that even birds stayed in the shade. I stood on the chair and leaned forward so that my upper body hung entirely over the railings. “Wheeeee!”
“You’re going to fall,” the boy said lazily, draping his arm nonchalantly around my grandmother’s flowerpot. His floppy bangs—black as sesame seeds— had an oily shine. He came over to my home for so many dinners and play dates that he practically lived here.
“You try it!”
“I’ll do it after I go to the bathroom.” He paused, scratching his head. A devilish grin lit up his face. “Hey, can I go to the bathroom here? It looks like your first-floor neighbor’s cucumbers need a little watering.”
For the rest of the afternoon, we exploded into a fit of giggles whenever we looked at each other.
I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of dizziness as I looked down at my first-floor neighbor’s garden. It was strange that the older I got, the more acrophobic I seemed to become.
The three of us strolled quietly along the newly paved road. Grandpa and Mother walked side by side. I lagged behind. The sunlight kissed my forehead, filtering through the lush green canopy. They had only been saplings when I had moved. A block away, the pond where I had spent so many afternoons had been replaced by a majestic, sixty-floor office building. My elementary school down the street had been torn down as well, leaving nothing but an ivy-cloaked wall.
Places can’t hold memories because they don’t have the capability to stay frozen in time, I realized. They are but raindrops suspended in midair for only a fraction of a second and leaves that change color through the seasons. People come and go. Walls get torn down and rebuilt. My childhood home was only a shadow of what it had been, but in the midst of this strange neighborhood, I had found a small piece that belonged to me.
As I walked through the quiet streets, I felt more at peace than I had in a long time. All the mundane things that had cluttered my life for the past several months—schoolwork, friend drama, and a smattering of typical teenager issues—seemed incredibly insignificant at that moment. In the end, the little girl taught the teenager a lesson. No matter which corner of the world life takes me, no matter where I end up, no matter who I love, there is always one place where I can find myself: home. And when home becomes nothing more than a memory, I just have to look inside my heart for those richly colored walls.
That little girl who loved watching sunsets and nearly cried over a piece of leaf? Thankfully, she’s still here.
Siqi Liu is a junior at Napervilled Central High School in Naperville, Illinois. She is an editor of her school lerary magaine, “The Icarian,” and a journalist for the Chicago teen paper, The Marsh. In her free time, she is usually writing, jogging, or burying her nose in a book (her fovorite autors include Alice Munro and Edgar Allen Poe). She writes mostly fiction but has recetnly dabbled in petry and creative non-fiction. “Pictures In My Heart” is her first memoir.