Read Low Online

Authors: Anna Quon





For my father and mother, Dr. Charles Quon and Patricia Joan Wagstaff Quon who have been my there for me through all the crazy darkness and in the light.




Darkness within darkness. The gateway to all understanding.

—Lao Tzu ( Tao Te Ching)


In the darkness all cows are black.

—Slovak proverb

Chapter 1

Adriana. Adriaannaaa. The sound of her name echoed through the stark corridors, empty of nurses, doctors and patients. There were no visible intercoms or speakers either, just her name repeating over and over, with no instructions to report anywhere. Still, she felt queasy not knowing what was wanted of her.

“Adriana. Adriana, wake up.” She opened her eyes slowly to see her father standing at the foot of her bed, grasping her big toe. This was the way he had always awoken her. She had done the same to him once, many years ago, as a round-faced toddler. Even then, she had known better than to cry or giggle, lest she rouse her mother.

Adriana felt some relief, that it was her father and not some nameless authority that she had to answer to. And not her mother, eight years dead, floating down the halls in a fluttering white shift.

“What time is it?” she asked, raspy with sleep and rubbing her hands over her face. She was sure her father had already visited her earlier that day.

The room where Adriana lay was desolate and unornamented. Despite the hundreds of people who must have passed through as patients, there was no shadow of any of them. Not a single personal mark, not an initial carved in the furniture or even a scrap of tape was left of them. It would be the same when she left this place, Adriana thought, but that was fine with her. She wouldn't want to leave anything of herself behind.

Mr. Song sat on the plastic hospital chair and leaned forward, his elbows on his bony knees. He looked haggard, his hair uncombed and wisping everywhere. He looked, in fact, like a patient, Adriana thought.

“Penny had a stroke this afternoon,” he said. There was a downward swoop of crows in Adriana's stomach. “She's unconscious, she's not going to last long.”

Aunt Penny in Toronto had become the adoptive mother to Adriana's much younger sister, Beth, who had only been a few months old when their mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. After Viera died, their father, heart wrung with grief, had decided to send Beth to live with his favourite sister. Penny's sour mouth melted into a heart shape when she held Beth, so Mr. Song knew he had done the right thing.

Adriana pushed herself up to sitting with her back against the headboard. She knew her father was in agony. Mr. Song pulled his hands down his face, as though he were washing it with a face cloth. From his red-rimmed eyes, Adriana thought he must have been crying. Where does an engineer go to cry? She imagined him at work, sitting in a storage closet or locking himself in the washroom.

“I want to bring Beth home,” her father said, squinting at his hands. Adriana's insides tumbled again. Beth, here? She felt her face get hot. Her dislike of her younger sister was unfair and selfish but she couldn't help it. It had just been her and her dad for so many years.

Mr. Song looked up at her, his eyes brimming with sadness. Adriana realized, in that moment, that it hurt him that she didn't like Beth, that she had never expressed interest in her sister. Somehow he had managed to hide his feelings for years, but now he didn't bother.

“Adriana, please…she's your sister.” There was anger in his voice. Usually that tone would make her sit up and take notice, but this time, she gave in weakly, lying back on her pillows.

Mr. Song stood to leave, his eyes soft and troubled. “You rest,” he said. Adriana nodded. She felt she'd been awake for a century. Mr. Song hugged her head to his chest. It had been a long time since Adriana was small enough to do that, and he could only do it now because she was sitting down. “You get well,” he said gruffly. Adriana knew he was holding back a flood of tears, that as soon as he got on the elevator, he'd be fighting to contain them, alone and without a tourniquet.

A feeling of guilt overwhelmed her, and she lay looking up at the ceiling, wishing it would come down and crush her.

Adriana thought she should have been a starfish or some other supine creature, without arms and legs. She wished her limbs would disappear, that she would cease to be recognizably human. Then no one would expect her to act like one, to live her life every day like a normal person.

She opened her eyes. There was the chair with the plastic orange seat, where her father had sat, telling her the news of Penny's death, and the fake veneer locker, narrow as a coffin, in the corner. The side table with a bunch of wilting flowers from her dad's garden, in a plastic jar. Nothing else, except her sneakers looking forlorn and abandoned near the door. They made her want to weep. But she had no tears. Her mind was corroded, a grey, metallic mass, full of little holes and eaten away by acid. It left a stain, like blood, when she tried to think. Adriana closed her eyes again, in the faint hope she'd go back to sleep; but her thoughts clacked against one another like dominos, beneath an industrial, almost deafening, hum.

Chapter 2

Adriana was spending more and more time in her room the summer before she was hospitalized. At first, her father seemed cheerfully oblivious. It was Jazz, Adriana's best friend, with her antennae for trouble, who noticed something was amiss.

“Come on,” she said, pulling Adriana by the arm out of bed, one morning after a sleepover and ostensible study buddy session, at the beginning of the university's fall term. She pushed Adriana, always a reluctant waker, into the bathroom, closing and locking the door so Mr. Song wouldn't barge in on them brushing their teeth.

There's never enough morning, a weary Adriana thought. Or maybe it was too much morning. She always felt like a refugee—homeless and futureless—when she woke these days. It was enough to make her wish that, instead of this scratching every day on the door of life, like a stray animal, there was somewhere else to go. Adriana realized she was being dramatic. She tugged at her thoughts, and stood up straight.

Jazz pulled at her pony tail and stuck her tongue out at the bathroom mirror. Running her tongue around her gums, Jazz grinned at herself, then frowns. Yup, clean. Eyebrows up, eyebrows down, like a
in ballet, Adriana thought. She cleared her throat, and Jazz wiggled her eyebrows at her.

Adriana splashed water on her face one more time. She liked a wet face, it woke her up, made her feel fresh. Made her feel half-way human. She picked up a women's magazine from the stack her father kept on the back of the toilet tank. As a single parent, he felt it was his responsibility to keep up with the latest parenting trends. Adriana squinted and frowned, then smiled mechanically, and repeated. It was good to have a relaxed face. Gospel according to Jazz.

“Do you know what your child is thinking?” popped out at Adriana from the cover of Chatelaine. It was an article about keeping the lines of communication with your teenager open. Adriana's forehead crinkled, until Jazz tapped on her cheek. How embarrassing, Adriana thought to herself, keeping her face entirely smooth. Parents and their teens were supposed to have one-word conversations. That was just normal.

Adriana understood that she was no longer a child, that she was barely even a teenager anymore. But she wished she could hang onto the fringes of childhood for forever. She thought about the only adult close to her, her father—awkward, sentimental, always on the verge of an emotional outburst. It was exhausting just to avoid adding any pain to his burden—something she felt she had the responsibility for, now that she was legally an adult. Is this what life is like? Adriana's mouth hung open at the thought. She closed her lips and then opened them again. This can't be what life is supposed to be like.

What is it supposed to be like
, Adriana's mother asked, arms crossed, in the very back of Adriana's head. Dead eight years from breast cancer, Viera always appeared to her daughter in a housedress, apron, and strangely, pointe shoes like a ballet dancer, ready to leap into action. Adriana shook her head, as if trying to clear water out of her ear. Her mother appeared to her in self-pitying moments, to chastise her, and in times of guilt and misery. Frown, smile, frown.

Jazz, mouth full of foam, put a hand on Adriana's shoulder. “You look so serious,” Jazz said, spitting a gob of froth into the sink.

Adriana realized she never knew what her face looked like, and she didn't check the mirror that often, because it gave her a headache. Jazz was always the one to tell her. Jazz had the china-smooth skin and classical features that verged on the beautiful when she smiled. When she didn't her face was plain as dirt. Adriana felt a dribble of spit running down her chin and wiped it with a towel. “I
serious,” was all she could muster as a comeback. “Now you look like a goat,” Jazz giggled.

One of her father's magazines said that it was possible to begin to change our mood just by forcing ourselves to smile, and Adriana had been experimenting. Her forced smiles didn't fit very well with Jazz's agenda to ban all wrinkle-producing expressions, but to Adriana, it was worth it if it lifted her mood. Her aim, though, was more to distract herself than any real change of affect. She preferred to keep her feelings locked up in a box, in the hope that they would just disappear. I haven't had a good wallow since my mother died, Adriana thought.

Her father had, though. He watched their old home videos with a bottle of wine in front of him, tears running down his face. Adriana, embarrassed, slumped beside him, her eyes on the flickering television screen. Her mother's long curly hair swung from side to side as she held Adriana's baby's hands and walked her toward the camera. Viera laughed and talked to her in Slovak, a language Adriana had long since forgotten. The video was blurry and yellowing, turning everything a golden colour including Adriana's skin. Her mother walked her right up to the camera, so close that she disappeared, and only Adriana's serious baby face—shiny slanted eyes and puckered lips—filled the lens.

If it weren't for the home videos, Adriana could have allowed herself to doubt her mother had ever existed. Among the Song family photos, there were barely any of Viera because she was always the one who took them, while Adriana's dad was in charge of the video camera. That was the way things were in their house, the labour neatly divided. Her dad cooked, Adriana did the supper dishes and her mother did the laundry, smoked the cigars with a tumbler of brandy, and cut the family's hair. Adriana and her father always had the same bowl-shaped hairstyle when her mother was done with them. You could tell they were father and daughter, with their straight dark hair in what her Dad would call the Song family haircut, and their slanted eyes. Her mother was the odd one out in the family. Her people were from the old Czechoslovakia, an ocean and a continent away.

Adriana wondered if her mother's heart was hard because she lived so far from her home and family. What she remembered most about her mother was the time she grabbed Adriana's arm and yanked her into the bedroom to make her bed. Adriana had been having a quiet afternoon, making a tent of her sheets and blankets for her Barbie dolls, and had gone to the bathroom for a glass of water, so as not to cross paths with her mother in the kitchen. When she returned to the door of her bedroom, Viera was there, and grabbed her arm, screaming, “You worthless girl. Look at this mess. You're no better than a gypsy!” The headscarf slipped off Viera's head, and Adriana was horrified to see the patches of baldness between soft clumps of short hair. Viera covered her eyes with her hands and collapsed on the floor. Sobbing, she tried to gather Adriana in her arms, but she shrank to the far corner of her bed, away from her mother. The weakness in Adriana's stomach was linked to this memory, as though they were handcuffed together.

Mr. Song, who had emigrated to Canada as a teenager and still thought of himself as Chinese, was gripped with grief when his wife was diagnosed. This country had given him an education, a career and a family, but now, according to life's unfathomable arithmetic, it was time for subtraction.

Jazz patted her mouth with a hand towel and handed it to Adriana. Somehow Adriana thought there should be some kind of face cream involved at this point but Jazz never touched the stuff. “I swear to God, face exercises and fish oil capsules are all you need,” she always said. Adriana thought of her mother, hair wrapped up in a towel and cream slathered on her face every morning. “Come on, we're going to be late for class!” Jazz was always rushing.

“I'm not going,” Adriana said. Jazz turned toward her. She had a look on her face that Adriana found disturbing. It was curiosity.

“Why not?” Jazz asked, attentive.

“Well, I don't feel well,” Adriana said, averting her eyes. It was true. The weak feeling in her stomach paralyzed her .

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