Coast Starlight

Short Fiction on Runaways, Trains, and Hawaiian Pizza

For My Friend

I hate Hawaiian pizza. I hate how the flavors clash. I hate the syrupy, canned fruit. I hate how the fattiness from the cheese melds with the sourness from the pineapple — and how you get mixed up gobs of sour, cheesy dough when you chew one bite for too long.

It reminded me of the Chuck E. Cheese on the other side of town, where the White kids and their suburban parents would go for birthdays and sports celebrations.

It reminded me of cheap casino buffets, where my dad would get free meals because he had already gambled away my college tuition and his retirement fund.

It reminded me of school lunches and skate parks and shopping malls and the childhood that I never had but I wanted so, so badly.

Hawaiian pizza was all they had left though at the sleepy pizza place next to the train station. It was nearly eight and the sun was setting. Streaks of purple and gold were strewn across the dusk horizon, God’s paintbrush reminding me that all was not lost in this cursed city. Above me, telephone wires hung like gallows. The street was dark, cast in the shadow of a coming rainstorm.

If today marked the beginning of a new chapter in my life story, it was only fitting that it ended with a greasy “Hawaiian” emblem of why I chose to turn the page. With that in mind, I strolled into the pizzeria, cautiously optimistic that this time ham and pineapple wouldn’t be so bad.

It was cramped and narrow inside. The walls were crammed full of Italian flags, postcards, and prints of Europe from the nearby IKEA. Fake grapevines and strings of Christmas lights criss-crossed the low ceiling.

A red alter to the Chinese god Di Zhu Shen glowed in the corner, filled with burning incense and offerings of mozzarella cheese and pepperoni. This idol was both the beauty and the curse of Little Henry’s Pizzeria, shooing away uncultured customers and leaving plenty of room for people like me, who knew a well-kept culinary secret:

The best pizza is not made by Italians or New Yorkers or Chicagoans — but by the Chinese.

To the older generations, America represented opulence and abundance, a land of plenty. And what better food to convey that than a thick piece of bread copiously packed with gooey mozzarella, salty pepperoni, and fatty sausage? It was disgusting and ostentatious and delicious — and my family ate it right up.

Nothing says America like a heart attack.

Little Henry’s understood this better than anybody. They never held back on their toppings.

So, with that in mind, I stepped up to the counter, excited for an extra cheesy slice of Henry’s pizza, even if it was tainted with ham and pineapple.

The cashier was a redhead in her late-20s with thick eyeliner and a floral forearm tattoo. For all of the years I had been coming to this specific pizzeria, I had never seen another person running the register. And yet, I did not know her name.

I knew her as the singular White figurehead of an otherwise Chinese business. She took orders with a big smile and a sunshiny attitude, a token employee who could draw in European tourists and the neighborhood’s mainly caucasian residents. My mother had always taken a liking to her, especially after the day the cashier complimented her eyes.

She called them exotic. She said that she wished her own eyes were that captivating, that alluring. Underneath it all, she knew that they were.

I hated how beautiful that girl’s eyes were. I hated how their light shade of grey captured her innocent, angular face. I hated how they framed her thin nose perfectly. I hated how their color matched the thick, swirling fog that filled the beachfront outside of the restaurant.

I hated how she wanted my mother’s eyes — and I hated how I wanted hers.

Today, the cashier wore chopsticks in her hair. I cringed.

“Your jewelry is dope,” She said, motioning towards the jade pendant I wore around my neck. It was bright green and in the shape of a snake, the Chinese zodiac of the year I was born. Most of the time, I wore it tucked into my shirt to avoid gazes from my White classmates. I figured I would wear it exposed on my trip, a testament to the growth and change I hoped to experience over the coming months.

Without hesitation, I tucked it back in. My shame, I had learned, was not confined to the classroom.

“Thanks,” I muttered, not quite in the mood to talk, “My grandmother gave it to me.”

The cashier smiled and gave me two slices for the price of one. She said that they were about to close up and that I looked like I needed the food anyway. She was probably right. I was rail-thin on account of my cigarette habit. I had been trying to break it for the past year and was doing well until my sister passed. Ever since then, I had been a pack a day smoker, and my appetite had gone by the wayside. I could almost see my ribcage.

I said a half-hearted thank you and handed her a five, then rushed out into a rainy East Bay night. It was freezing. The pizza and the paper plate were both soaked through.

If there was one thing I hated more than Hawaiian pizza, it was cold, soggy Hawaiian pizza.

Still, though, it had taken me two buses and a subway to make it to Berkeley. I didn’t have the time nor the energy to take a smoke break today, let alone eat lunch. I was starving.

I had some time to kill before my train pulled in, so I sat on a bench and gobbled down my soaking wet “Hawaiian” mess. Oil and pineapple juice ran down my fingers, mingling with the cold evening rain.

The station was strangely empty, with only a few shadowy silhouettes of businessmen occupying my peripheral vision. I undid my ponytail and hunched over, letting my hair fall across my face. I could see the split ends.

This was a habit I had since I was a little girl, when my mother had told me my cheeks were too big. If I wore my hair down and tilted my head the right way, no one would be able to see my side profile, and those onlookers from the front could only see my mouth, nose, and eyes. No matter what, my cheeks, still laden with baby fat, would stay hidden.

I hated that baby fat. I had tried to burn it off first with exercising and then dieting, but nothing, not even cigarettes, could bring me remotely close to that boney, Scarlett Johannson-esque facial structure that I desired so badly.

Why was she allowed to pretend to be one of us when I could never pretend to be one of them?

In the distance, I could see my train coming, a heaping steel behemoth glinting in the setting sun. A bittersweet tear rolled down my cheek. With luck, this was my ticket to a better life.

Despite all though, I had the jitters. It was the first time that I had traveled on my own, and as tough a face as I tried to put on by wearing my mother’s ripped jeans and my sister’s combat boots, inside I was terrified. I didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t know when I would get there.

All I knew was that I needed to leave.

The night I left started just like any other. I stayed in my room most of the time to avoid my parents, who had a tendency to nag me about finding a job or applying to college or doing some other tedious chore that was supposed to help me with my career advancement.

“They just care about my future,” I frequently thought to myself when I was younger, “They always mean well.” Some day, I would make them proud. Maybe I could finally convince them to love me.

This mentality kept me going until about junior year of high school, when things started to get really bad. That was the first time in my life that I had to seriously think about college, and with only a few months to go until application season rolled around, I realized that it just wasn’t in me.

Why move to a place I didn’t need to live only to major in something I didn’t want to study? Why not pursue my own dreams, my own ambitions?

It was my life, after all.

My father had instilled a deep sense of shame in me, though. I was twelve years old the first time he told me I would end up homeless without an education.

“I don’t care what you study so long as it’s in the sciences,” He told me, “You need to make lots of money to survive in this world!”

Most of the time, I brushed this off, but as my senior year inched closer and closer, I started to imagine the very real possibility of spending my entire life slaving away in medical scrubs or a lab coat — or even worse: wasting eight hours a day bent over my desk in a cubicle, a corporate peon reduced to a paycheck and a 401K.

I wanted to be a writer, but my family would never foot the bill for me to study humanities. Despite that, writing was the only way that I could escape this hell I called home.

I lived in a tiny one-story rental with my family. My mother couldn’t work on account of her arthritis, so my father worked two jobs to keep our family afloat. Needless to say, we didn’t see much of him — and when he did come home, he was usually so exhausted he would fall right onto the sofa, not bothering to change his clothes as he dozed the night away.

I knew that on those evenings that he collapsed on the couch, he dreamt of happier times. Sometimes, on his rare days off, he told me stories of his old village in China, how the sun seemed to pause just above the horizon until all of the fishermen's boats were brimming with carp and catfish. He told me that the weeks in the late summer seemed like they would never end. After my father finally returned from his daily fishing excursions, my grandmother would steam that day’s catch with fresh ginger and scallions from their garden. His family lived like that for generations, sharing meals born of their ancestral land as they watched the sun set on crystal waters and jagged, glowing cliff banks.

“Americans call it the Yellow River,” my father once told me, “but to me, the Huang He was always gold.”

I liked to think that when my father slept on our sofa — his body wrecked from two day’s worth of work — in his mind, he was back on the banks of his childhood home, reeling in catfish and staring off into the river’s endless expanse.

Some day,” I thought, “I’ll visit that place too.

I thought about our home in China often. I imagined Chang’e and Sun WuKong and all of the other tales that my grandmother had told me in my childhood. When I was a little girl, I used to pretend that I was a lost Chinese princess, that I belonged far from my parents’ screaming matches and our cramped little house.

Now, I wrote my own stories. Entire worlds existed in my head. I wrote tales of love and hope and redemption. If I tried hard enough (or smoked enough weed), I could close my eyes, forget my existence, and find myself in a separate little universe, basked in golden sunlight, fishing on the banks of the Yellow River with Chang’e and Sun WuKong and the man my father was before he moved to America.

The night I left, I was writing a fairytale about a girl who could turn into a dragon. I imagined that I was her, that one day I could fly above this these gridded suburbs and go all the way back to China, where I thought I belonged.

The heat that night was almost unbearable, and my ceiling fan blew plumes of hot summer air around my cramped bedroom. My father had come home early that night and was having a drunk argument with my mother, which had become semi-frequent occurrences in our household. Sometimes, I wondered if he stayed at work late just so he could avoid coming back.

I’m usually able to tune out their yelling by writing, but tonight’s discussion was different.

Tonight’s discussion was about me.

I felt a knot in my throat as I eavesdropped on their conversation. Despite the constant whirring of my ceiling fan, the air around me seemed to stand still.

“You want her to end up like her sister?” My dad screamed. I heard a glass crash against the wall. I could feel my heart start to break.

My sister, Evelyn, had died of a Ketamine overdose six months prior. This was the first time I had ever heard my family say her name since she passed. They had remained stoic and emotionless for nearly half a year, but their arguments had grown more bitter by the day. My parents forbade me from speaking of her, and what memories that did remain I kept close to my heart.

Evelyn never had a funeral. It was as if she had simply disappeared — or never even existed in the first place.

We found her sprawled out on the bathroom floor. The doctors couldn’t save her, and we would never conclusively know if she had chosen to take her own life. In her final moments, though, the darkness in her eyes told me all that I needed to know.

A few days prior, she had told me that she planned to leave, that she had outgrown our tiny little apartment and that it was time she moved on. I didn’t know what she meant until we found her laying there with her hand on her heart, her silky hair sprawled out on the cold tile.

Even in death, she was beautiful.

“Fuck you! That was your fault,” My mother yelled at my father, “You never gave a fuck about her and she knew it! You always spent your time with Mimi, your favorite daughter. It was me who picked Evelyn up from school! It was me who raised her! You barely said a word to her in the last three months of her life.”

My father was silent for a moment. I heard him pace around the living room grumbling Cantonese profanities. The next words he said were barely a whisper, but I could still hear them through our paper-thin walls.

“Mimi was an investment,” He said softly, “For some reason, she doesn’t want to go to college. We’re doing something wrong.”

Another dead silence. I had never heard my family speak of me like this before, let alone call me an investment. I realized that my fists were clenched, sharp nails dug deep into the palms of my hands. In my family’s eyes, I was money. I was a tool they could use to get a bigger house or a nicer car or simply to save face. I was a justification for the lives they left behind in China and for the love that they sacrificed to raise me and my siblings.

With Evelyn gone, all familial responsibility fell on my shoulders.

I didn’t have to worry about being reduced to dollar bills and paychecks. To my parents, I had been those things for my entire life.

“We leave China for what?” my mom asked bitterly, “So she can become a writer and work at Starbucks?”

I was at the end of my rope. Unconsciously, I bit down so hard that my lip bled. I turned the ceiling fan all the way up to drown out the rest of my parents’ conversation. All I could hear was the rhythmic whoosh whoosh of the turning blades and the occasional police siren from outside my window.

I sobbed until the wee hours of the morning, gut-wrenching moans that I felt deep in my stomach. I knew that I had to do something drastic or I would end up like my sister. The screaming matches and the fights and the nights spent cowering in bed — they were all too much.

This wasn’t the first night I felt an urge to run away, but I knew that this time, I wouldn’t be able to control it.

When the house was asleep, I packed my bag and stood out in the living room for what seemed like an eternity. I wasn’t sure when — or if — I would be back to this place.

For the last time, I noticed our home’s unique smell of burnt rice and mothballs. It was a scent that was leftover from my grandmother. She had passed years ago but still made her presence known through our noses.

I opened the refrigerator door and tasted a few pieces of pineapple. These were fresh and organic, bought yesterday from the local farmers market. They weren’t the canned kind or the syrupy kind. They weren’t the kind you would find on top of a pizza. They were sweet without the syrup, the kind my mom would cut up for me to tell me she was sorry.

Holding back tears so as not to wake my parents, I stuffed my favorite family photo into my backpack and hurried out into the night.

In the photo, my sister had on a flowing white blouse with deep blue stripes. She posed between my parents, the three of them beaming brightly with our Golden Retriever Astro. They were at a family barbecue in the park near our house. All of my aunts and uncles came together once a year to share stories and reminisce on the old country, bringing mounds of fruits and candies and dim sum. I had chosen to stay home, though, because my parents had a nasty tendency to brag about their children. I could never handle that embarrassment, especially when I was thinking about skipping college.

In the back of my mind, I could hear Evelyn’s shrill, joyful laugh. She loved those picnics, and I would have given everything to be able to be there with her. Six months had gone by and I still couldn’t believe she was gone.

The photo was taken the day of her passing.

I was nowhere to be found.

The train car was nearly empty, save for an old woman in the front with her sleeping husband. To my left, the maw of the Pacific was a black, swirling pit. Mist from the marine layer blew through the open windows, filling our cabin with the salty stench of the sea. The Bay Bridge glimmered in the distance, a parting gift from my home of the past eighteen years. In an instant, it vanished too.

It was done. I was alone.

I wasn’t sure how far north I would go. I was hoping to find some place where the people were as fucked up as I was and the drugs were good enough to exorcise the ghosts of my past. I figured Redding would suffice, but I would go as far as Portland if it meant I could outrun whatever I felt was chasing me.

I wish I could have taken my sister with me.

I pulled my cap over my face, harsh wool tickling my lashes. I needed sleep badly, but my heart was palpitating and my head felt like it was resting on a bed of needles. I tossed and turned in my seat, restless to the point of despair. I didn’t know why, but I felt like crying. I was stressed. I was exhausted.

I saw myself in the pitch-black train window and didn’t recognize who I was. When did I get so gaunt? Why was I wearing so much makeup? Was my hair thinning?

When I looked into my reflection, mother’s face stared back at me. I had her eyes. I wanted to tear them out.

I could feel another headache coming on. I felt like I was on fire, but no matter how much I fidgeted and squirmed, my restlessness wouldn’t go away. To this day, I have never felt a deeper, more primal sense of impending doom.

My heart was racing. I gasped for air. I couldn’t tell if I was going through an anxiety attack or nicotine withdrawal.

There was nothing I wanted to do more than jump out of the train onto the dirt below. I imagined myself laying there, soaked in a winter storm, becoming one with the trees and the mud and the worms. I saw myself sinking into the Earth, joining my sister and my grandmother.

Maybe I could finally have some rest. Maybe I could finally have some fucking peace of mind.

“But peace of mind is a myth,” I thought to myself as the train roared onto a rusted bridge above the Carquinez Strait. Below me, the waters swirled dark and wretched, ever haunted by three nearby oil refineries. Their carcasses loomed in the distance, strange and oblong metal bones that glowed iridescent in the moonlight.

It was at that exact moment — speeding through the pouring rain in a great big metal box — that I was able to grasp the gravity of what I had done.

Mom and Dad.

My sister, whose grave I visited every week since her overdose.

Our little rice-and-mothball scented home.

Our quaint Sunday night dinners, the one time that the quiet storm brewing in our household was subdued not by honesty or tenderness, but by my mother’s shrimp dumplings and chicken soup.

“You can’t eat straight A’s.

The high school and my little circle of misfit Asian friends, our diaspora within a diaspora, the people I could always count on to sneak me out of the house or help me lie behind my family’s back. I’ll never forget the time Joey told my mom that my cannabis tincture was an ointment for back pain.

Things change. And friends leave. Life doesn’t stop for anybody.

My grandmother, who lived with me every day in spirit. She would console me when my mother’s words were too crass and too painful. She was the angel to her devil — and some nights, I found myself dreaming of those lazy summer days of my girlhood when she would cradle me in her arms.

These were the memories I left behind, literally and figuratively, as I sat, head against the window, a ghost on the horizon in a thin metal bullet, a streak of lightning against the California sky.

“All of these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

Yeah, I definitely needed a smoke.

I moved to a seat in the back corner of the train, fumbling through my backpack until I felt the hard plastic of my vape pen slip between my fingers. It was pineapple flavor. How ironic.

I ducked down beneath the seat in front of me and stole a small hit, ignoring Amtrak’s no smoking policy.

Relief, however temporary, washed over me. I leaned back in my chair and rested my eyes.

I focused on the rhythmic clack of the train tracks as my breath fogged up the dirty window. Outside, the suburbs turned to farmland and the redwoods gave way to oaks and pines. California faded away.

My grandmother had been on a train like this too once, half a century ago when she fled communist China as a stowaway bound for Hong Kong. When my father told me her story, he made me promise never to mention it in front of my grandmother. He told me that there was enough shame in her heart to last a thousand lifetimes. She left behind her mother, her father, and all of her siblings. When she tried to reconnect with them, they wouldn’t return a single call, and our tiny home in the middle of nowhere wasn’t exactly the life of glamour she had hoped for in the U.S.

I felt a twinge of guilt knowing that sixty years later, I had also left home on a train. I guess being a runaway runs in the family.

Evelyn had run too, just not in the same way.

I still don’t know where I’m headed. Mostly, I ride the rails in search of some ill-defined future that I may or may not ever stumble upon. But the world is serene and quiet and beautiful — and for the first time in my life, I feel like me and the Earth are spinning on the same axis. Maybe I’m even spinning a little bit slower. That’s okay, too.

I like to think that my grandmother and my sister were with me the first night I spent on that train. I can still feel them every day. Sometimes, I can hear their voices carrying in the wind. Other times, as the train plunges further into the misty dreamscape of the Pacific Northwest, in the corner of my eye, I see them standing between the Ponderosa Pines.

Now, when I stare at my reflection in the window, I see their faces — and I see my own, too.

Thomas Young is a Chinese American writer and musician from San Francisco, CA. His work focuses on Asian American identity, culture, and counterculture.

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