William by Katherine Yang

He tells me that there’s nothing here for him.

In the summer of ’97 he was born in this town and for his entire life he has lived in his two-story house with five white pillars. His dog looks at him with the same loving eyes whether his hair is black or yellow or purple. His parents own a restaurant just a couple miles down the road; they greet the world with a cheerful, “How may I help you?” and he delivers for them every once in a while, accepting smiles as his tip. I know him the way I knew the back of my hand when I was young: phone numbers written on it in Sharpie, inked into my skin so I wouldn’t forget. But this is a sleepy town, and he dreams in crystal sharp Technicolor.

the soap bar melts against warm skin
circling, kneading, scrubbing
left on the fingerprinted, lemongrass counter.

Wanderlust keens from his aching bones, straining against tanned skin and towards the hazy morning mist, bright with opportunity and glittering with dew. He runs in the morning like it will take him somewhere, anywhere but here. Anywhere but home. He tells me he doesn’t like the city so I pretend not to see the way his eyes linger on the horizon, looking for something we can’t give him with our littleness. “When I graduate,” he says, “I’m leaving.” I reply with, as always, “Whatever makes you happy,” and he pretends not to hear the defeat in my voice. Or maybe he doesn’t notice.

it molds itself to his touch
lovingly, it softens and then—
smaller, smaller, smaller.

I try to ignore all the parts inside me that he will take when he leaves. I try to forget lemony afternoons in a small piano room, shrieking laughter and wrong notes, falling asleep while waiting for him to warm-up.

“Hey, wake up.” A gentle nudge. I groan, “Give me five more minutes.” He pauses. “Fine.”

I try to forget Skype calls, because he promises he will visit and I don’t want to be disappointed by the sincerity in his voice. I try to forget Skype calls, shouting, “I’m bored” and forty minutes later being instructed, “Get the boots. They’re 300 Gold” followed by, laughingly, “God, you’re awful at this game.” I try to forget Skype calls, even though he lives right down the street. I try to forget his promise to carry me out of junior high on his shoulders. I try to forget the way his eyes soften when he looks at me, when he asks if I’m okay. I try to forget his stupid dance moves when he knows the world is watching but he couldn’t care less. I try to forget everything.

I try to forget, but only halfheartedly.

it disappears under his careless hands
a drop of soap, a hint of lemongrass
and the shower water beats hotly against his skin.

He leaves on the twenty-third of July for California. I’ve seen his back thousands of times before, but it never looks as small as it does the day he says goodbye. His entire life is packed into his mother’s mulberry suitcase and a single, zippered backpack. “Do you ever plan on coming back?” I ask him as he fades into the crowd of crisp heels and rolling luggage. Twenty minutes later he texts me a brief “see you later,” and that is all I get. That is all I get.

The next year, I don’t tell him when my lungs collapse and I’m put on five different medications and given an inhaler. I don’t tell him when my throat scrapes like wildfire and I don’t tell him that I see speckles of blood when I cough. I don’t tell him when I cry like the world is juicing me of my emotions, wringing me of the droplets of my despair. I don’t tell him. I don’t tell him.

he turns off the shower with a squeak.
“mom!” he shouts, towel-wrapped and shivering,
“we’re out of soap!”

One day he calls me. His voice sounds tired.
“It’s me.”
“…I know.”
“I—I think I want to go home.”

he opens the cabinet door
unwraps a fresh bar of soap
and slips back into the warmth.

there is the faint scent of lemongrass.

I look at the phone for a long time.