Chapter 2
How far can you see from there?

It started with my parents’ separation fifteen months ago. They didn’t seem like the kind of couple who would ever split up—they’d never really fought much and as far as I could make out neither of them had cheated—so when they sat me down on the living room sofa one thundery evening last October and broke the news I didn’t know what to say. It felt wrong; it felt like the kind of thing I never should’ve had to worry about. 

A trial separation, they said because I guess even back when things were falling apart between them they weren’t sure being apart would work either. My dad bought a collection of IKEA furniture and moved into a one-bedroom apartment a twenty-minute walk from our house and my mother began spending a lot of evenings with her friends, dissecting what had gone wrong with her marriage. One night I overheard her on the phone, talking about the way two people can become so familiar to each other that it’s a form of mutual blindness. “Neither of you see the other clearly anymore,” she lamented. 

I didn’t want to think of my parents that way—looking at each other like old shoes they couldn’t remember why they’d picked out in the first place—but I acted like I was more or less okay with their split. Mature enough to understand that having separated parents practically came with the package of modern life. I’d always been good at holding myself together. I’d never run away from home. Never missed making the honour roll. Never had sex. Never passed out drunk in a puddle of vomit. Basically, until their break-up I’d been the kind of teenager a parent hardly had to worry about. 

It wasn’t a struggle, more like a natural default. Maybe it had something to do with being an only child when I wasn’t meant to be. Maybe it was just genetics, or that living on a planet that could soon become a permanent disaster-zone of climate upheaval made middle class teenage rebellion seem self-indulgent, unless there was good reason for it. 

It’s not as though I turned into some kind of wild child overnight when my parents split either, but they saw things differently. Both of them disliked my first boyfriend from the start while I appreciated his South American soccer player type looks and had him pegged as a good guy with an innate sense of social justice. In reality, I hardly knew Matias Varela when we started dating but had been listening to him make jokes at the expense of my mean-spirited math teacher since September. Jokes everybody but Mr. Pham had to appreciate because they diffused the tension that came from having an asshole who lived to make fun of people for a math teacher. 

From the few things I did know about Matias I filled in the blanks with my own idea of the person I wanted him to be. Intelligent. Sensitive. Funny. Of all those things, Matias proved to be only the last, and after seven weeks of being his girlfriend, funny wasn’t distraction enough. 

Whenever I’d tried to get to know the real Matias, who I suspected was lurking beneath his sarcasm or fascination with fantasy football, he’d acted like he didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. “I’m not hiding any big secrets,” he’d say. “Maybe I don’t think about things the way you do.” For a while I’d gone on believing that was some kind of camouflage for a deep mind. 

But Matias wasn’t complicated. He wasn’t all that sensitive either and in the end his jokes didn’t seem especially funny. So Matias and I became a short story, together in January and over by March. My first official relationship shouldn’t have been more than a blip, but Matias wouldn’t let go without making things messy. He kept wanting to talk, stopping me in the school halls and calling so frequently that my mom yelled at him over the phone. Not because I’d broken his heart in Shakespearean proportion, I don’t think, more likely that I’d injured his ego.

My parents were already beginning to drift back together by then and took Matias’s erratic break-up behavior badly. Actually, they seemed to interpret my ever having been with him as a lapse in judgment and warning sign that I was changing into someone they couldn’t trust. 

Considering that we were talking about seven short weeks with someone I’d hardly gotten past first base with, their attitude didn’t seem fair and when my parents told me about their summer reunion plan, I was torn between feeling happy for them and resenting being treated like an appendage. It was May then and my mom and dad had been meeting up at regular intervals for months but weren’t ready to take the leap and start living together again. They planned to take a vacation together first and see how things went, an extended Mediterranean cruise that would last the majority of the summer and include stops in Turkey, Greece, Spain, Belgium, and Russia.

The minute my parents made the decision, my own summer plans were obliterated at the worst possible time. Only a week earlier Jocelyn’s brother, Ajay, had been arrested for impaired driving causing bodily harm. The trial date was set for mid-July. It was difficult to accept that the same guy I’d regularly sat next to at the Sandhu dinner table had drunkenly plowed into a woman out jogging, toppling her like a bowling pin. But that’s exactly what had happened; there was a strong possibility that the thirty-one-year-old woman he’d hit would never walk again. 

Ajay had been released on bail, but he and Joss’s entire family were devastated. Although I knew I couldn’t change that, I thought I’d at least be able to be there for her. My parents had markedly different thoughts and fully intended to ship me off to relatives three thousand miles away in Ireland for the summer. So enthusiastic were my mom and dad about their test reunion-vacation that it didn’t even faze them that I’d have to write my June exams a week early to accommodate their holiday schedule. 

I made a solid case for staying in Toronto with Kérane or Yanna but was overruled. “Two and a half months is too long for anyone who isn’t family to be expected to watch over you,” my father said time and time again, flatly denying their plans for me had anything to do with Matias-related distrust. 

“It wouldn’t feel like a long time if I was no trouble,” I’d protested. “I can’t leave Jocelyn here alone for so long with what her family’s going through.”

I shouldn’t have needed to explain. My parents knew how close Jocelyn and I were—ever since shortly after we’d injured ourselves colliding in a seventh grade gym class basketball game and had to sit out the rest of the period together. 

Half Indian Sikh and half French Canadian, Joss had a complexion similar to mine. Both of us were constantly mistaken for Hispanic, when we were actually of mixed ethnicity, in my case half Egyptian and half Irish. Yanna (Filipino, Lebanese and Jamaican) and Ker (German, Chinese, Ukrainian, Indo-Trinidadian) got the “where are you from” question aimed at them even more frequently than Joss and I did. Most people were nothing but nice, but we’d all had to deal with our fair share of people who secretly, or not so secretly, wanted you to be more of one thing and less of another. I'd been accused of acting white because I spoke little Arabic, didn’t wear a hijab (never mind that when my mom had left Egypt nearly half a century ago virtually no one wore a headscarf) or follow Islam. 

But I wasn’t Christian either; I wasn’t any religion, which equally bothered intense Christians. After learning of my dual heritage but lack of affiliation with Islam some of them would assume I was Christian like they were only to turn aloof when they found out they couldn’t consider me saved. Then there were the white people (again, not many, but still…) who seemed taken aback when my mother’s English proved not only to be as good as their own but was spoken in a clipped British accent, or still others who simply preferred to ignore my Egyptian half. On a semi-regular basis strangers reacted with mild surprise when they heard the fair-skinned, middle-aged man next to me was my dad. 

But between Joss, Yanna, Ker and I, at least, fitting into an impossibly narrow cultural identity wasn’t something we had to worry about. And the older I got, the more freeing my background felt—like there was no set in stone manual for being me so I could be whoever I chose.  The four of us could make it up as went along. 

It was Jocelyn, though, who was my best friend. From the night of our first sleepover we’d never run out of stuff to say, and things I wouldn’t tell anyone else, I could share with her. Like how although I couldn’t ever remember my parents being in love the way I would’ve wanted to be, to think of them breaking up for good burned a small hole through my heart.

“They’re not going to do that,” Jocelyn had promised me. “It’s a mid-life crisis thing, that’s all. Being apart is going to wake them up to what a good thing they have going.” 

If only my parents had been as understanding about Joss as she’d been about them. Instead they countered, “Jocelyn’s not going to be alone, and we’re doing this for our family. You can spend all your free time with her once you’re back.”

No matter how I begged or agued, my mom and dad didn’t cave. In the end all I could do was make lukewarm peace with the idea of going to Ireland and I almost had when Joss called me up at noon on a Saturday at the end of May—her voice rasping like she’d swallowed a razor blade—and told me she was on her way over. Twenty-three minutes later I was ushering her downstairs so my mother wouldn’t see her red-rimmed eyes. They were painful to look at and as I closed the door behind us I asked what was going on. 

“Mr. Cheng came by our house,” Jocelyn said breathlessly, her eyelashes like dewy black petals and her thick black hair dishevelled. “He tried…he tried to push his way in to see Ajay. He kept talking about his baby son and he had a bunch of photos of his wife that he’d taken at the hospital. I saw one. It was horrible.” 

“What happened?” I wrapped my fingers around Jocelyn’s arm and didn’t let go. Melanie Cheng was the woman Ajay had left crumpled in the street. None of us were ever going to forget her name. Every time I heard it the words felt like a slap. “Did he get to Ajay?”

She shook her head quickly. “My dad shoved him outside. Mr. Cheng swung at him and pushed him down on the sidewalk, the photos scattered in the wind. He was scrambling around, picking them up and my father shouted, ‘Just go. I won’t call the police if you leave now.” 

“Did he go?”

“Yeah,” Joss sniffled into her hand. “He was crying when he went, I think. From the doorway I could hear him breathing hard.”

I dropped Jocelyn’s arm, folded both of mine around her shoulders and crushed her into a hug. 

After a few seconds she whispered, “I just want this not to have happened, you know? To go back to the way it was before.”

Heavy words twisted in my throat. A confession that wouldn’t change anything so why say it? Because she should know, I thought stubbornly. You know you should say something. 

My cheek pressed against Jocelyn’s, two sides of me battled silently, the same side as always winning. The side that said what Ajay did to Melanie Cheng had nothing to do with me and that the before Jocelyn was referring to was the pathway to where this would happen eventually. After all, I’d heard Joss complain her parents were too easy on Ajay countless times over the years. Before the accident they’d rarely said more than a sarcastic word about his late nights out and weekend hangovers. Then he went away to university where Jocelyn suspected he was living it up worse than ever. 

According to her, Ajay was severely bullied all year when he was thirteen—beaten, humiliated and tormented on a near daily basis. In the end his parents had put Ajay into a different school and sent him to a highly recommended therapist, afraid of what he might do if they didn’t throw all their weight into helping him. And it worked, I guess. Ajay had plenty of friends by the time Joss and I started hanging out. It seemed his parents’ gratitude for his change in popularity had blinded them to other problems.

“I know,” I whispered back, releasing her. “And, you know, maybe Melanie Cheng will make a full recovery. Even the doctors can’t say for sure yet.”

“Maybe, maybe.” Behind Joss’s brown eyes sprawled mountains of tiredness. 

Neither of us said what we were both thinking, that even in the best case scenario Ajay would still have to serve time. He was going to plead guilty; prison was a done deal. 

“Can we walk or something?” Joss asked, clearing her throat. “It feels claustrophobic in here. Every time I see your parents I feel like they must be judging me by association.”

“They’re not,” I insisted. “They’ve known you too long for that.”

Jocelyn rubbed her eyes and, unconvinced, pressed her lips together so firmly that they disappeared inside her mouth. “Come on then,” I urged, pulling her forward. “We’re going.”

Outside we huddled together like old women with exhaustingly ancient secrets, trekking towards the midtown coffee place that was Joss’s new favourite. It was funny, Jocelyn’s parents didn’t like the idea of her drinking coffee—as though it was this overly adult thing to do—but before the accident they’d only registered the most minor disapproval when Ajay woke up with a splitting headache after a night out. 

The coffee shop didn’t have a single empty seat and irritation surged through me. Did everyone need to be here as badly as we did? Why couldn’t the universe cooperate and let Joss have the minute distraction of a semi-comfortable wooden chair inside a coffee shop?

We took our sweet coffees to go, wandering into a drugstore for no other reason than to kill the minutes she would’ve spent thinking about Ajay and Melanie Cheng someplace else. In the makeup aisle I pulled out lipstick after lipstick, smearing the colours onto my hand and holding them up for her approval.

“You do realize every one you pick up looks exactly like the shades you already own,” she said, reaching into her purse to fiddle with her phone. 

“I can’t help it. I’m the same me every time I look at lipstick.”

“Yeah.” Joss chewed her coffee cup. “Sorry. I’m just not in the mood.” We both heard her phone beep and her hair fell forward as she turned her attention back towards it, her spine slumping. “I have to go. Family meeting.”

“I’m surprised they let you go out after what happened with Mr. Cheng.” These days Joss’s family had a meeting daily, it seemed. 

“They didn’t. I just grabbed my shoes and ran for it. I texted my mom on the way to your house and then turned off my phone.” 

I bumped Jocelyn’s shoulder sympathetically. “You should’ve left it off longer.”

Joss half groaned and half winced. “I know.” 

“Okay, well, I’ll walk you home then,” I offered. Back on the sidewalk seconds later Jocelyn dipped her fingers into the front pouch of her purse. 

“Here. It’s your colour.” She pressed a brand new tube of lipstick in my hand, all the packaging torn away. She answered my look of surprise before my mouth could form the question: “The alarm didn’t go off. We’re clear.”

I slipped the lipstick in my pocket, relieved she wasn’t caught. The last thing her family needed now was to deal with more charges. 

Back in eighth grade Joss and I had walked into that very same drugstore together one Thursday after school, and each pocketed a cheap eye shadow palette. We were so stupid about it that we didn’t remove the packaging, and when the alarm rang out in complaint as we were leaving, the middle-aged cashier must’ve mistaken our shock for expressions of innocence. 

“Don’t worry,” she said, shooing us with one hand. “It’s been acting up all day.”

Neither of us ever tried it again—until today.

Every step took Joss and I nearer to her house, me doing most of the talking, until we were standing at the bottom of the driveway, eyeing it with the alarm a movie camera observes a haunted house. 

“Text me later,” I urged. “Tell me what they say.”

Joss hunched her shoulders. “It won’t be anything good. But okay.”

When I heard from her that evening her text said Ajay was bouncing off the walls, his guilt reaching new heights as he tormented himself afresh about what he’d done to the Cheng’s baby—stolen half of his mother away. She added:

He should’ve thought of that before. It makes me so angry. But I hate to hear him like that too. I’m so worried about him. I want him to pay for what he did, but at the same time, I want him to be okay. I wish I could just feel one way or the other. It would be so much easier.

I hated it all too. Most of all, what it was doing to my best friend. My worry for her punctuated each day, every conversation where she confided how the accident was warping her family—her parents’ bitter arguments, her little sister Ruby’s nightmares where she woke everyone up with her screaming and then claimed not to remember what she’d dreamt, and the pills the family doctor had put Ajay on for depression. Jocelyn had dark pouches under her eyes, proof she wasn’t sleeping well either, and each of her nails were bitten to the quick.

The day she said—“This is crazy enough without you being thousands of miles away. I can’t believe you’re not going to be around this summer.”—was the day I went back to my parents and begged them to reverse their decision about Ireland. 

“Everything is coming apart on her,” I cried. “Can you imagine what that feels like?”

But it was obvious from the moment I raised the subject that my parents had no intention of changing their minds, no matter what I said. In their opinion a summer wasn’t long and I could be emotionally present for Jocelyn from a distance, Skype with her whenever she needed. Never mind that Ajay seemed to be verging on suicidal and that being three thousand miles away and communicating via internet servers wasn’t anywhere near the same thing as being there.

The conversation fell apart fast and soon I was fighting with my parents like never before. My rising sense of desperation made me shout as though I were some bad seed teenage delinquent type from Dr. Phil, all puffy-eyed and rampaging indignation and, when my parents stared at me in shock, I had to bite my lip to stop myself from crying. In the end the rampage only seemed to prove their point that I needed supervision because clearly I was unstable

I was still thinking about Jocelyn when my flight whisked over the Atlantic Ocean—not that I could see any hint of water from 35,000 feet. For hours there was nothing but black outside my window, my mind circling a gnawing doubt that seemed to sharpen with every mile. 

You should have told her months ago. 

But nothing bad happened that night last winter.

It could have made a difference.

But things probably would’ve turned out just the same. 

I replayed the night of December twenty-seventh in my head, scrutinizing the details to a soundtrack of airplane white noise and a periodically crying baby. How two days after Christmas I’d slept over at Jocelyn’s exactly like I had a dozen other times over the years. How Joss and I made sugar pie with Ruby, walked the Sandhu’s Westie Bert—who had a habit of burrowing into snow drifts like an arctic fox, watched a spy thriller together, lounged around with hair masks on and drifted off to sleep mid-conversation around two o’clock in the morning. 

How a couple of hours later I woke up thirsty from the pie and headed down to the kitchen in the dark. Ajay stood in the crack of light from the open refrigerator, downing the contents of a large water bottle, a set of keys looped around one of his fingers. Although he was home for the holidays he’d been out with friends earlier; it was the first I’d seen of him all night.

“Hi,” I said, feeling slightly self-conscious in my Minnie Mouse print pyjamas.

“Hi,” he echoed as he yanked the bottle away from his mouth. Ajay motioned to the fridge and stepped back, allowing me the space to take what I wanted.   

“Just getting home?” I asked, the smell of beer hitting me while I edged in to grab a jug of iced tea.

He shook his head and capped the bottle. “Heading out to pick up a friend who got himself stranded.” 

“Are you okay to drive?” 

Ajay rolled his eyes, the rest of him freezing in place. “Don’t I look okay? You sound like you’ve been spending too much time with my sister.” He held up two fingers. “That’s how many beers I’ve had tonight. Hours ago.”

Our stares locked in the barely lit kitchen, Ajay’s glare sparking with exasperation and impatience. “Unfortunately, I don’t have time to walk in a straight line for you,” he snapped. “I gotta go.” He stepped towards the counter, setting the water bottle down next to the coffee machine. 

I was the one who put the water bottle back in the fridge, and I didn’t yell after Ajay and tell him not to go. I didn’t start shouting and wake up the whole house so that his parents would stop him. In the moment I didn’t know what to do. Maybe he was right and I was wrong; I wasn’t sure. Like he’d said, he didn’t look drunk. The smell could’ve come from beer he’d spilled on his shirt earlier for all I knew. 

I poured myself a glass of iced tea, gulping it down as swiftly as Ajay had swallowed the water. Then I went upstairs and dove back into the sleeping bag next to Jocelyn’s bed, wondering whether I should wake her. 

Late the next morning, when Mrs. Sandhu casually mentioned Ajay was still asleep in bed, the fact of his safety seemed to prove him right and me wrong. I never said anything about the incident to Jocelyn, and for months that didn’t seem to matter. Only maybe in the end it had, maybe if I’d told Jocelyn or her parents they would’ve confronted Ajay last December and he wouldn’t have crashed into Melanie Cheng months later. It was a long shot, but it was possible. And then again, maybe Ajay truly was one hundred percent sober on the twenty-seventh and I was imagining a connection between two events that didn’t exist. 

I still didn’t know and I had a knot the size of a tennis ball in my throat by the time a flight attendant announced that passengers should return to their seats for our final descent into Dublin airport. Rain drops were pelting the window next to me and as the plane broke through the ceiling of cloud cover, I got my first glance at Ireland in eight years. People aren’t lying when they talk about how green the country is. Roadways divided a landscape of low-rise buildings and residential neighbourhoods, but the land itself was such a vibrant green that it was nearly luminous. 

The middle-aged man on my other side stirred in his seat. He’d been asleep for most of the flight and he yawned as he grabbed the lever to propel his chair into an upward position. “The ears are aching,” he muttered, reaching into a blazer pocket and pulling out two candies wrapped in foil paper. He extended his hand to offer me one, smiling as I reached out to take it. 

“Thanks,” I told him. I smiled back, but my stomach was lurching. This summer couldn’t be over fast enough. If there were any way I could’ve fast-forwarded to the end of August to get back to Toronto and be there for Joss like I should, I would’ve done it in a heartbeat. 

As it was, I popped the butterscotch flavoured candy into my mouth and tugged a pen out of my knapsack. My right hand jerked across a fresh page in my notebook, composing a barely legible letter to my sister.

Dear Rana,

How far can you see from there? Do you know what I’m writing to you about without me explaining? And do know what will happen?

Things can go really wrong and then get better, can’t they? I wish I wasn’t so far away, and that you weren’t so far away too, so that you could tell me that. Maybe coming from you I would believe it more. And if you were here, you could tell me whether I should confide in Jocelyn about that night in December and I’d listen to you. I’d do whatever you’d say because I’d know it was the right thing.

From here, I don’t know how things with Jocelyn’s family can turn out right— or exactly what right would be — but whatever is for the best for them, is what I want. That has to be possible, doesn’t it?

Amira xo

It was the first time I’d written Rana since my mom’s breast cancer scare five years earlier, when the fear that I could lose my mother had made my insides feel like someone had attacked them with a scouring pad and bucket of bleach. Since there was nothing else I could do with the letters I used to slip them into the mailbox at the end of our block, as though they would someday reach my sister. I guessed that when I landed in Dublin I would do something similar with the new note, although this time I didn’t have an envelope to seal the message inside. No doubt in the end some Irish post office employee would divert the piece of paper into a stream of undeliverable mail, or maybe toss it directly into the trash.

Why, then, did it make me feel slightly better—if just for a moment—to have written it?