Magpies are just Magpies

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic


A Chinese-born-American high schooler desperately searches for a good-bye gift for his girlfriend before he moves to China. It's a coming-of-age story about the meaning of love.

Submitted: September 07, 2018

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Submitted: September 07, 2018

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The night before I decided to break up with Celina, I rode the subway into Chinatown in search of a good-bye gift for her. After two hours of sidling through the throng of people on the streets with my hands in my pockets, I had found nothing. The jade dragon earrings had been too expensive. The small, black purse that the sketchy guy claimed to be made of magpie feathers had been too creepy. Who wants a purse made with magpie feathers? Aren’t they illegal to kill anyway? At one point, I had even stopped by the dessert shop, but I had decided against the steamed buns because I wanted to give her something that lasted more than a few bites.

I sighed. Somehow, I ended up next to LaoLao’s Pho, so I went inside. As the steamy warmth washed over me, I squeezed past the tables and sat next to the display of moon cakes. Bright red lanterns were tethered to poles in the shop. Why hadn’t I ever taken Celina here before? I came here by myself all the time, anyway, but Celina and I had only ever gone to Five Guys for her vanilla shake, or to Uno’s for nice pizza. There was so much I should’ve done.

“Tony, I haven’t seen you in months! Look how big you’ve grown.” A small, portly old woman, smiling so much the brown skin around her eyes crinkled, made her way to me.

“LaoLao, don’t embarrass me, I’m a freshman in high school now, and I’m not growing anymore. How’s the new employee?”

“Oh, she walks around like she has thorns sticking out of her. She’s always knocking into things. But, what’s wrong, Tony? It’s the second day after Chinese New Year, and you look like you’ve been moping around.”

“It’s a girl…. My family’s moving back to Shanghai before the school year starts because father lost his job, so it’s good-bye to her. I came out here to get a present.”

“Aw, Tony, it’s just a girl. You’re so young.”

“Yeah, I know, but I just don’t understand why we have to move back to China now.” Darn it. Why did I start sniffling?

“Tony,” she cooed, “Do not worry. The heavens will bend for you when you find true love. Have you not heard the tale of Niulang and Zhinu? Zhinu was taken from Niulang by a goddess, and when Zhinu tried to fly up to reunite with her, the goddess slashed a chasm through the sky. Today, Zhinu and Niulang are the stars Vega and Altair, separated by the milky way. But the magpies were so touched by their love that every seventh of the seventh month, they use their wings to build a bridge to allow them to come together.”

“Magpies?” I asked. “The bird? With black feathers?”

“Yes, young one. Magpies. They are the essence of love. They allow the heavens to bend to bring loved ones together.”

My jaw dropped. That magpie purse! From that street vendor! What a coincidence that I had found the perfect gift… or was it fate? Had I somehow come across a love charm to make things work? Heat rushed through me as I remembered the way Celina’s short, blond hair bounced as she ran up to me; the way we leaned on each other on summer afternoons on park benches in the Commons; the way she tucked her warm hand under my chin as she put her lips on mine…. Surely the heavens would bend for her!

Shaking myself out of my memories, I stared into LaoLao’s warm, black eyes. She had baby-sat me when I was a toddler, spent afternoons telling me Chinese folklores after my hard days in third grade, and given me a job here when I reached middle school. Surely this woman’s wisdom wouldn’t fail me now.

“Thanks, LaoLao, I’m going to leave now. There’s something I need to do.” Ignoring her protests about feeding me pho, I stood up, jostling past the tables and into the frigid night. Outside, the steam that rose from the street vendors blurred my vision, and the smell of roasted duck made it hard to breathe. But I sprinted through the crowd until I had finally reached the skinny man with the cigarette in his mouth, sitting on the faded carpet that his goods and charms were spread out on.

“Sir, I want to buy that magpie purse.” My voice shook from pants.

“Young boy, it’s sold.”

“What? It’s been sold? When? Where?”

“Just now. She went across the street.” He jerked his head.

My vision narrowed, solely focusing on that slim, retreating figure sporting a long white coat. Before I knew it, I was pushing past people and recklessly weaving through traffic-slowed lines of cars to cross the street and reach the plaza.

“Excuse me, please, did you buy that magpie purse!” I yelled, grabbing onto her white fur coat before she disappeared into the horde of people.

“Crazy boy, watch it!” The buff man next to her swore in Chinese and slapped my hand. “Don’t touch my wife!”

I blinked. I had grabbed a woman’s milky wool scarf, not a coat. Already tuning out his insults, I craned my neck and spotted my true target halfway across the plaza. Dashing through the throng, I accidentally ripped a grocery bag out of a young woman’s hand, almost knocked over a baby carriage, and tripped over a low table that two men were playing checkers on. They spat on the cobblestone where I fell. Rolling back to my feet, I continued to shove past people.

Finally, my comedic sprint ended as I stumbled up to the woman with the white coat and desperately grabbed her coat. Wheezing, I stammered out, “Please, miss, can I buy that magpie purse from you?”

She must have seen the commotion behind me, noticing how much I had done to reach her. Looking at my face, which was red from running, and at my nose, which was dripping in the cold, she opened her mouth and closed it a few times. Maybe it was the bizarre situation I had put her in, or maybe she had some backstory of her own that made her understand my desperation. But finally, she nodded yes.

Yes! This magpie purse was mine. It was mine! Let the heavens sing! Everything was okay! I could continue being with Celina; I could stay in the U.S. Then, next month, I would take her to LaoLao’s Pho and tell her this ridiculous night, and we could both get closer over this, and everything would be okay….

 

* * *

Three weeks later, I ended up slouched in a third-class seat on United Airlines. As the airplane engines roared and the seatbelt lights flickered, tears rolled down my cheeks. I could taste their salt in my mouth.

What had I expected that night? That when I ran home three-thirty in the morning, back from Chinatown, my mom would suddenly run out of her bedroom saying we’d be staying in the U.S.? That when I met up with Celina the next day, she would tell me that her family had decided out of the blue to buy a second house in Shanghai? That when I gave her the magpie purse as her good-bye present, she would hold my hand and declare that long distance was going to work?

Instead, what had actually happened was that I crept into the apartment in the dark at four fifteen in the morning, dropped everything in my hands onto the carpet, and crawled under my covers, falling dead asleep. When I woke up the next morning, my throat was hoarse from running in the cold last night and my eyes dry from the contacts I had forgotten to take off before I slept. I went to the bathroom to try to get them out for three minutes before it suddenly hit me that I was supposed to meet Celina at noon. Grabbing my phone, I saw that I only had forty-five minutes, so I ditched the contacts, showered, put on a button-up flannel, picked up the paper-wrapped magpie purse from the carpet, and ran downstairs. I slowed down before I hit the bottom step though; I didn’t want to be so brash if the situation downstairs was what I thought it was. Recently, both my parents had been a mess ever since they were both laid off in the same week.

I peeked around the corner and saw that I was right. My mom was sitting at the kitchen table, face in hand, crying, while my dad sat at the office desk crammed in the corner of the kitchen, shuffling different versions of his resumes and interview notes. Frowning heavily, he was muttering in Chinese, “I told you, honey. There was no point in applying for that job. They won’t hire anyone less than a Ph.D. It was a dumb waste of time….”

“Uh, Mom, Dad, I’m going to head out,” I said quietly, slipping out the door. “Be back before three.” Outside, I started running down the icy sidewalk, knowing that it was a long way to Celina’s house.

Finally, I arrived at her home at the end of Calvin Lane. Nervously, I pushed open the tall gates and rang her doorbell. She opened the door, wearing a cute North Face hoodie with black leggings.

“Uh, Celina, I’m really sorry, but you know how I’m moving back to China, right? I don’t think we’ll be able to see each other anymore. It’s best that we break up. Here, I brought a gift for you.”

I pulled out the magpie purse and handed it to her. Had it looked this small last night? Today, under the bright morning sunlight reflecting off the snow, I saw that it was pathetically wrapped in thin brown paper with tape messily holding it together. Part of the black magpie feathers stuck out of the holes in the wrappings.

Celina slowly took it, her eyes large and surprised. We stood there for a few seconds, staring at each other. She looked at me, hurt and unsure, while I stared at her back, my heart pounding, waiting for the magic to fall. Possibilities ran through my mind: Celina could announce that her family had also made plans to move to China, my mom could suddenly call and say that one of them had found a job in the U.S., or Celina’s dad would walk up and offer my dad a position in his firm.

Celina smiled, and for a moment, I truly believed that Celina would grab my hand and declare that we would date long distance. For the last twenty-four hours, I had repeatedly told myself that I had been praying for a miracle, but the only miracle I wanted now was for her to acknowledge that I was someone precious and special to her. I held my breath, waiting for her to say that she would go to school every day missing me at lunch; that was one of things I would miss most about her, anyway. I would miss holding her warm hand, talking to her on the phone late on Sunday, buying Bertucci’s cheesecake together…. Abruptly, the messy plans that we had made for me to join her family on a trip to Mexico popped up in my mind, and my heart swelled.

But the smile Celina gave me was sad.

“Tony, I’m really sorry too that this had to happen, but I think this also makes the most sense. I’ve really enjoyed dating you, so thanks for that. Have fun in China.”

Defeated, I trekked back to my house with my hands in my pockets, feeling that a huge chunk of me was missing. Back home, my mom was no longer crying but boiling water for tea. I sidled into my room and threw myself on the bed, wondering what went wrong but feeling like half of me already knew….

For the next week, I wandered around my house like a sleepwalker, waiting for a something to change. Finally, the evening before we were going to the airport, I laid on my bed listening to Kendrick Lamar, no longer even hoping for a miracle, but just wondering whether Celina would talk to me before I left. Anything would have been fine. Skype. A phone call. Or even a text. But she never did, and that was why I cried as the plane took off the next day.

The magpie purse was just a magpie purse. LaoLao had been wrong after all. Magpies were just magpies. They couldn’t build bridges with their wings. Or maybe it wasn’t LaoLao who was wrong. Maybe it was us. Maybe the love between Celina and I wasn’t true love, but a young rush for affection. The rest of the world wouldn’t bend for two high schoolers who wouldn’t even talk to each other just because an ocean got between them. The existence of technology and planes could’ve made long distance possible, anyway.

Maybe in a different world, a world where Celina wasn’t born rich and I wasn’t born poor, where Celina wasn’t born American and I wasn’t born Chinese, where Celina wasn’t so aloof and I wasn’t so impulsive, we could have worked out. But that demanded too much of the external world. Anyway, my parents loved each other through their economic struggles, and LaoLao loved me through my moodiness. For me and Celina, it was almost love, but not quite.

 


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