BERKELEY'S NEWS • OCTOBER 01, 2022

We’ll meet in Mei: A short story

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BETSY SIEGAL | FILE

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MARCH 12, 2022

Mei Huang meets August Claremont in the spring, when the air smells of rotten honeysuckles and mist. 

A chill rattles her bones even through her cardigan — a sure, swift wind that jostles her gait and forces her hands into thin denim pockets. Mei’s breath comes in sharp bursts: clouds that look like cotton balls stretched too thin. There is a rhythm to her walk, even now, and she leans a little forward in anticipation of catching a glimpse of budding dandelions on the hill just outside of her middle school’s front doors.

And then she spots them. Soft, so soft and small and silky she has to squint to see, but they’re there. Mei grins, feeling her 13-year-old self brighten with everything she has to muster, like sunlight spilling over the plains when it’s daybreak. The thrill peeks over the horizon, as if a little tentative, and then comes in rolling, golden beams. Mei reaches behind her and grabs the disposable camera in her backpack’s mesh pocket to take a picture —

“Hey,” someone says, and Mei stops. Turns. Looks at this intruder, because that’s exactly what he is: an intruder. Not welcome, not welcome, not welcome, her brain chants chaotically. “Is that a disposable camera?”

She looks at the yellow Kodak in her hands and then back up, up, up into his face and tries her best for a smile. “My brother gave it to me,” Mei explains quietly, eyes expanding into direct focus of the face in front of her. “I haven’t used it yet. Or, like, ever.”

At first, Mei sees only his enormous backpack hanging from his shoulders, a result of multiple three-inch binders and paper handouts that make her back ache on the walk home. But then her gaze rises to meet his face, and she sees a nose too big for the rest of his features, a beauty mark above the left side of his lip, and unruly, uncombed brown hair so dark that it’s nearly black. The casual curls nearly reach his eyebrows, where acne is peppered around his temples. 

“Cool,” the boy says, waving a bit and falling into step before she can protest. “You’re in my grade, right? I’ve seen you around in the halls with the colored pins on your backpack. They’re cool.”

Mei doesn’t want to talk to him. She just wants to take photos, and is this so hard? Why isn’t this disposable camera capturing the dandelions, oh god, it must be broken

“Wait,” he says, coming closer to point at the dial on the right side. “You have to turn that until you hear a click, and then you can take the shot. Like — that. Yeah.”

Her cheeks are flushed when she takes the picture, and Mei mutters a simple thanks and keeps walking down her neighborhood road while he stays put, excited to eat the pizza her dad has warmed up in the oven for her as a special after-school snack. 

“What’s your name?” she shouts at him as she heads home, the boy with the big eyes and big nose and maybe a big heart too. “You never told me.”

“August,” he tells her, smiling like a crystal glittering in the sun. “What’s yours?”

“Mei,” Mei shouts, waving her disposable camera for him to see one last time. “I’ll see you around, August.”

If she smiles when she takes a bite of the cheesy crust, it’s only because it tastes good and not because a boy helped her take a photo on a cheap, flimsy camera.

Certainly not that.

***

Mei Huang holds August Claremont in the summer, when the air smells of sticky sunscreen and chlorine.

They’re at Ocean City — a place that looks much better on tourist magazines than in actuality, where people are herded together on the rough, artificial sand with embarrassingly sunburned skin and children who won’t listen. Salt is in Mei’s hair from the water, sugar on her hands from the cotton candy. But somehow, she’s blissfully content as she watches August sip slowly from his styrofoam soda cup.

He’s growing into his nose. It’s not as drastic as it was before, and the acne is slowly starting to dissipate as they’ve finished sophomore year of high school. The hair is still the same, though: chaotic, messy, glossy, and Mei takes and takes and takes these unsaid thoughts until she feels so much that she can’t push them down anymore. It’s bursting at the seams, a flower and her roots running so deep that she can’t differentiate what is soil and what is air. 

“That’s going to give you diabetes,” she points out, a little flatly, glaring at his cup as if it offended her. Mei doesn’t know how to tell him that whenever she sees him, she wants to scream and then cry at once, like her body can’t decide to fight or flight. They’ve been stuck to the hip since their encounter in eighth grade: after-school snacks, homework sessions, awkward parental meet-ups, group hangouts. In a sense, they are MeiandAugust. There was no before and no after, just now

August sticks out his tongue. “You’re a brat,” he tells her, voice so warm and teasing that it leaves Mei stuttering. “You’re missing out. Life’s too short, Huang. If I want to get diabetes, then just let me be diabetic and enjoy this beautiful drink.”

“Drinks aren’t beautiful.”

“Semantics.”

“Is this an argument? Because I could totally start and argument, and you’d know I’d win —“

“Only you would start an argument over something so trivial as soda.”

“August.”

“Mei.”

“Hand me the soda cup.”

“No.”

She steals it anyway, something fluttering erratically behind her ribcage, warm and then warmer and then hot, a burning sort of sensation that Mei distinctly recognizes as adrenaline. Seawater drips down her black hair and lands in droplets onto her thighs; August’s nose is beginning to turn a bit red, as if he’s blushing.

Mei hands it back when she’s finished half of it. He shoots her an exasperated but fond look, muttering unbelievable, Mei underneath his breath but letting her have the last sip anyway. 

Her reasoning: “Your heart will thank me later.”

“Not like you’re doing any favors for my heart now, Huang.”

He looks at her for a moment. She keeps her gaze on the tacky, neon umbrellas standing up perpendicular to the sand. 

August is silent even as she hands him the sunscreen and tells him that he looks like a lobster.

***

Mei Huang loves August Claremont in the fall, when the air smells of dead leaves and buzzing anticipation. 

He goes, “You look different.” They are 18 now, a budding age of youth and something growing into a ripened peach, soft and a little fuzzy at the same time, a picture of the fruit dropping from The Childhood Tree and landing —

Landing where?

Mei turns to look at him. She sees: a boy with eyes that are still too big, eyelashes so much longer than hers that it makes her jealous when she stares at them too much. She sees: a boy that still has messy hair, the tips grazing the edges of his curved ears and hiding the cartilage piercing that he’d gotten as a dare from one of his friends. She sees: a boy who is looking back, this open-mouthed expression, a little intimate and a lot terrifying, exhilarating, something that wants to send her sprawling on the snow. Something curls into herself — knees up, arms wrapped around them, fingers interlocked. It is tantalizingly real.

She sees: a boy who is looking back, this open-mouthed expression, a little intimate and a lot terrifying,

“What do you mean?”

August shrugs, taller now. “I don’t know,” he responds, breath coming out in frosty puffs. The chocolate drink in their hands goes untouched as the two of them sit on the curb outside of their local coffee shop. “Just a feeling, I guess. Maybe it’s because you’re leaving.”

Something twists inside of her chest. She’d committed to the University of San Francisco as a fine arts major just last week, and she was happy. Her mother bought a vanilla sponge cake and didn’t stop cutting up sweet apples for a week; her father had already started making a college list for the fall, poring over plane ticket prices and hotel rates. 

Then, she was happy.

Now, she is not too sure.

“Are you upset that I decided to commit?”

August flinches. “No, god no, Mei — it’s great. It’s so, so great, and you’re going to be wonderful —”

“Then what do you mean?”

He closes his eyes. Mei focuses on how a snowflake melts on the tip of his nose. “I just wish we had more time.”

More time, more time, more time.

The seams are bursting, and Mei wants to scream. Because the truth is — the truth is, Mei thinks she’s loved August ever since they were 15 and he ran all the way to her house when she said she tore her ACL. She thinks she’s loved August ever since they were 16, when he bought her tickets to a Japanese rock concert just for fun, and they moved with the music the whole time while not knowing the lyrics. She thinks she’s loved August ever since they were 17, when he attempted to bake her a disastrous cake and accidentally substituted salt for sugar.

She thinks she loves August even now, but it feels like she’s taking these pieces of the past and trying to make it fit into a too-small frame. Mei thinks about what it would be like to come back home and not know what to say. 

“And if we had more time,” she says slowly, softly, “could anything really be done?”

“I don’t know,” August whispers. His fingers twitch. “Maybe I’d tell you how much I —”

“Don’t.” Mei’s voice is firm, and she takes back her previous words. There is something liberating in being honest, and she knows what he’s going to say, but there is also something liberating in protecting herself, too. In placing this imaginary armor across her chest and knowing that she’ll be okay. “There’s no coming back from that, August. We both know that.”

“Well maybe I don’t want to.”

She stares at him and feels her heart stutter. “You’ve been my best friend since eighth grade. You remember every birthday, every anniversary, every important thing in my life before I can write it down. And I know you have a red circle on the date that I fly across the country.”

August’s eyes turn misty, a little uncertain. “It’s actually green, but whatever.”

Mei flicks his forehead. “So what I’m trying to say,” she continues, “is that if you can hold onto those words for a little longer, you can say it to me when I get back. Only if you need to.”

His hands bring the cup to his lips, bittersweetness lining the softness of his cupid’s bow. “I have a big green circle for when you come back, too, you know. Just promise me that if you’re going to get a tattoo, you’ll call me first.”

She says yes. Of course she says yes.

They go home, and then she thinks: will we survive the world?

***

Mei Huang meets August Claremont in the winter, when the air smells of molten hot chocolate and new beginnings.

He is standing in front of her door, a gray beanie covering his head and two hands tucked into her jean pockets. Her heartbeat accelerates, a tsunami ready to crash down on her life again, so desperate for relief and the destruction that lies in its wake —

“Mei,” August breathes, grinning. “You’re back.”

She looks at him and sees the past. Disposable cameras. Melted ice cream cones. Dirty sneakers. Sunscreen. Shared headphones. Oversized sweatshirts with a bleach stain on the side. Cups of hot chocolate with a chip on the handle. She looks at him and sees the color blue.

But there is a new August in front of her, someone that she does not fully know as well as she did a few months ago. Someone that she will have the honor of knowing all over again, this feeling of in-between flaring up and up and up until she feels overwhelmed. 

This is August. But it is not her August.

That’s okay. Maybe she can know this one, too, just as well as she did before.

She grins. Breathes slowly, surely. Says, “I’m back.”

It was always MeiandAugust. Two different times of the year that combine in a catastrophically beautiful meeting once again, two different months that somehow exist under the same umbrella as seasons

And those may come and go, but Mei holds onto this moment and keeps it close close close until summer begins and she has to let go. But for now —

But for now, it is: Mei, and August. 

She smiles. It’s perfect.

“Okay,” he laughs, beautiful and bright and blossoming. “I have something to tell you.”

Contact Madeline Kim at 

LAST UPDATED

MARCH 12, 2022


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