An untuned brown piano sat in the living room where I grew up. You loved that piano even though neither of us had the talent to play it well. You paid for me to take lessons, moving me through four different teachers until the last one pulled my fat yellow fingers back and declared I played like I had chewing gum stuck to them. We both quit her then, stuck pink tongues out at the back of the retreating teacher, our dogs barking a chorus as she left our house one last time. That woman is a trickster, you said, and I nodded vigorously, happy you took my side.
The one musical thing that did ring in that house was the loud asbestos awning that sang vibrations when it rained. On those days, you and I would cram into the bathroom with its green tiled floor, tiles that were wholly inappropriate for a bathroom because they got slippery when wet and I had to grip my toes into the dirty grout so I wouldn’t fall over when you bathed me, scooped water with a little red plastic scooper out of a tangki that stored water, or when the government cut the water supply, out of a cracked blue bucket. You pulled sheets of water through my hair, squeezing tight to wash out the lather of sweet Johnson’s baby shampoo. I would yell, Mommy Mommy about the water being cold, and you would tell me to close my eyes and trick myself by pretending the water felt good. You’ll get used to it, you said. I closed my eyes and then, just as you said, felt only the pleasure of the cold droplets rolling off my hair onto my body, coloring my skin blue and pink with goosebumps.
Your hair did not have time to fully grow in after you stopped chemo and before you died, those tufts of fuzz wirier than the smooth hair you had in the before times. One day I offered to help you wash your hair, but you told me the water was too cold and that the blasts of the shower would be too hard on thin skin. I told you to close your eyes. Pretend, I said. I turned the shower on the lowest, softest trickle, then wiped a soft, warm cloth through your hair, my version of your trick. I knew your body had given up when your skin tags, dark brown on your translucent skin, turned the same sick white-yellow-gray as the rest of you. Your body could not fight anymore, could not trick the cancer into remission, and then you told me, I cannot fight anymore.
This past year I have fought the squalls of my grief, sudden and relentless like the tropical storms you loved to hate in the home we both missed where water floats everywhere in the humid air, moisture sticking to the oils of our skin and holding us down. I fly back to that home tomorrow on a white-and-blue plane, one day before the social media condolences start rolling in to mark the one-year anniversary of your death. It will take me one day to arrive, but the calendar will say two days have passed, the dateline a way for me to trick my body into passing through the pain, just like how you taught me. I had a plan.
Then yesterday my friends and writing advisor bought me a pair of fluffy, sparkly red slippers to commemorate me going home to Malaysia. There’s no place like home, they sing-song-sang, and as I clicked my heels, stiff knees more Tin Man than Dorothy, I surprised myself by laughing, the burble rolling through my body, real happiness—their trick so kind and full of care it shocked my body into remembering how to feel joy—its own homecoming.
Vanessa Chan is a Malaysian writer. She has writing published or forthcoming in Conjunctions, Electric Lit, Ecotone, Best Small Fictions, and more. She’s a fiction editor at TriQuarterly, and she has received scholarships to the Sewanee, Tin House, and Bread Loaf writers’ conferences, among others. She is at work on a novel and a story collection. You can find her at www.vanessajchan.com or @