Chapter no 19



Mom lives in a suburb outside Philly—near enough to Boston that I can get on the Amtrak and be there by lunchtime the next day. I have to root around my phone for her street address—I haven’t been to the Philly house in years, and I never see Mom outside of our yearly Christmas and Thanksgiving gatherings at Rory’s. I’m sure this spur-of-the-moment visit is a product of vulnerability, motivated by fear and childlike regression. I’m also sure, past the initial hugs and tenderness, that I’ll regret coming at all; that once the “I’ve missed you” and “You look good!” chatter turns to the same overcontrolling, patronizing comments that have spiraled into blowout fights in the past, I’ll hop on the train and hurtle back to DC.

Right now, though, I just want to be near someone who doesn’t hate me on principle.

Mom’s waiting for me on the front porch when I pull up. I called a few hours ago to ask if I could come stay for a bit. She agreed without even asking what was going on. I wonder how much she knows; if she’s seen my name smeared all over the internet.

“Hey, Junie.” She envelops me in a hug, and the touch alone makes my eyes sting with tears. No one’s hugged me in so long. “Is everything all right?”

“Yeah, of course—I was teaching a workshop in Boston, and it’s just finished, so I thought I’d make a pit stop here before I head back home.”

“Well, you’re always welcome here.” Mom turns, and I follow her into the house. She doesn’t ask how the workshop went. Her blatant disinterest in anything that has to do with writing always stung when I was younger, but today, it’s a comfort. “Watch your step, though—sorry about the mess.”

The path to the kitchen is covered in half-empty cardboard boxes; blankets, bunched-up newspapers, and towels are strewn across the tiles. “What’s going on?”

“I’m just putting some of the clutter in storage—careful around those vases. The Realtor said it’ll look nicer without all this stuff in the way.”

I pick my way around an array of white ceramic cats. “You’re selling the house?”

“I’ve been getting it ready for a while,” says Mom. “I’m headed back to Melbourne. Wanted to be closer to my girls. Cheryl’s closing on a condo for me this week—there’s plenty of guest rooms, you’ll be able to visit. Rory didn’t tell you?”

No, she didn’t. I’ve known that Mom has wanted to go back to Florida ever since Dad died, that Philadelphia was only ever a compromise because my grandparents lived close by, but I never connected that with the real possibility that we might not call this place home anymore.

I suppose Rory never felt such a deep connection to this house, though. I was the one obsessed with the sycamore trees in the backyard, with hiding out among their roots and spinning stories long after Rory decided it was time to return to the real world.

“Did you pack my room up yet?”

“I’ve just gotten started,” says Mom. “I was going to put most of your things in storage, but why don’t you go see if there’s anything you want? Give me some time to wrap up this porcelain, and then we’ll meet back down here for dinner.”

“I—oh, sure, okay.” I pause on the staircase before I go up. I keep waiting for Mom to ask me what’s going on, for her to intuit with her motherly senses that I’m deeply not all right. But she’s already turned back toward those stupid ceramic cats.


bookshelves in neat rows of five. They’re each labeled with my name, the year, my phone number, and a ten-dollar reward offer if returned to the owner. No Moleskines here—my notebooks were always those college-ruled, black-and-white-splattered composition notebooks that you buy for ninety-nine cents at Walmart while your parents are doing back-to-school shopping. My dream worlds.

I pull them out and set them on the floor.

I used to live my entire life out of these notebooks. They’re crammed with doodles I scribbled instead of listening during class; full-scale drawings I sketched out after school; half-finished scenes or story ideas or even fragments of lines of dialogue that came to me throughout the day. Nothing in these dream worlds ever became a fully formed product—I didn’t have the discipline or craft skills then to write a complete novel. They’re more like a smorgasbord of creative churning, half-formed doors to other worlds, worlds in which I lingered for hours when I didn’t want to be in my own.

I flip through the pages, smiling. It’s cute to see how derivative my story ideas were of whatever fandoms I was in at the time. Sixth grade: my Twilight phase, and I was clearly infatuated with Alice Cullen because I kept describing a protagonist with the same gravity-defying pixie cut. Ninth grade: my emo phase, and everything was Evanescence and Linkin Park lyrics. By then I’d begun sketching out some gothic, futuristic dystopian cityscape where kids flew around on skateboards and everyone had floppy, skunk-tail bangs and arm warmers. I guess Ayn Rand was an influence at some point in tenth grade, because by then I was writing paragraphs on paragraphs about a male lead named Howard Sharp, who bowed to no one, who had an unassailable sense of pride, who was a “lone believer in truth in a world of lies.”

I spend the rest of the afternoon going through those notebooks. I don’t notice the time slipping by until Mom calls upstairs asking if I want takeout for dinner, and it’s only then that I realize the sun has set. I’ve lost myself for hours in those worlds.

I call down to Mom that takeout sounds fine. Then I root around for a cardboard box to load my notebooks into. I’ll bring them back to my apartment and let them linger in the closet, maybe take them out whenever I’m feeling particularly nostalgic. They won’t suit my current purposes— there’s nothing there that I could turn into a sellable manuscript now. But they’ll remind me, whenever I need it, that writing didn’t used to be so miserable.

God, I miss my high school days, when I could flip my notebook open to an empty page and see possibility instead of frustration. When I took real pleasure in stringing words and sentences together just to see how they sounded. When writing was an act of sheer imagination, of taking myself away somewhere else, of creating something that was only for me.

I miss writing before I met Athena Liu.

But enter professional publishing, and suddenly writing is a matter of professional jealousies, obscure marketing budgets, and advances that don’t measure up to those of your peers. Editors go in and mess around with your words, your vision. Marketing and publicity make you distill hundreds of pages of careful, nuanced reflection into cute, tweet-size talking points. Readers inflict their own expectations, not just on the story, but on your politics, your philosophy, your stance on all things ethical. You, not your writing, become the product—your looks, your wit, your quippy clapbacks and factional alignments with online beefs that no one in the real world gives a shit about.

And once you’re writing for the market, it doesn’t matter what stories are burning inside you. It matters what audiences want to see, and no one cares about the inner musings of a plain, straight white girl from Philly. They want the new and exotic, the diverse, and if I want to stay afloat, that’s what I have to give them.


“They’re new,” she informs me as I sit down. “Horrible service; I wouldn’t go back there in person. It took me three tries just to get some water. But delivery is fast, and I like their orange chicken.” She opens a carton of rice and sets it before me. “You like Chinese food, right?”

I don’t have the heart to tell her that it was Rory who liked Chinese, and that Chinese food makes my stomach roil, especially now, since that horrible club meeting in Rockville.

“Yeah, it’s fine.”

“I got you the Triple Buddha. Are you still vegetarian?”

“Oh, only sort of, but that’s fine.” I split my chopsticks open. “Thanks.”

Mom, nodding, spoons some pork fried rice onto her plate and begins to eat.

We don’t talk much. It’s always been like this between us—either placid silence, or vicious fighting. There’s no casual in-between, no common interests we can shoot the shit about. Whatever wildness Mom once possessed seems to have evaporated back in the eighties, when she was smoking pot and following bands around and naming her children things like Juniper Song and Aurora Whisper. She went back to work after

Dad died, and since then has molded herself entirely into the American ideal of a working single mother: perfect attendance at her office job, perfect attendance at our parent-teacher meetings, just enough savings to put Rory and me through good schools with minimal student debt and to set up a retirement account for herself. The demands of such a hustle, it seems, left no room for creativity. She’s the kind of suburban white mother who buys home living magazines at the grocery checkout counter, who drinks crate upon crate of four-dollar wines from Trader Joe’s, who refers to Twilight as “those vampire books,” and who hasn’t read anything other than Costco discount paperbacks for decades.

Mom always got along better with Rory. I always got the sense that she didn’t quite know what to do with me. It was Dad who could always follow me wherever my imagination went. But we don’t talk about Dad.

We sit in silence for a while, chewing on egg rolls and stir-fried chicken bits so sweet they taste like candy. At last, Mom asks, “How’s your, well, book writing going?”

Mom has always had the particular ability to reduce all my aspirations to trivial obsessions with a simple disinterested question.

I set down my chopsticks. “It’s, uh, fine.” “Oh, that’s good.”

“Well, actually, I’m sort of . . .” I want to tell her why I’ve been so miserable these past few months, but I don’t know where to begin. “I’m in a difficult place. Creatively. Like, I can’t think of anything to write about.”

“You mean like writer’s block?”

“Sort of like that. Only usually I have all these tricks to break out of it. Writing exercises, listening to music, going on long walks and whatnot. It’s not working this time.”

Mom shoves some bits of chicken aside to snag a candied pecan. “Well, maybe it’s time to move on, then.”


“I’m just saying. Rory’s friend can always get you into that class. You just have to fill out the application.”

Mom has suggested that I do a master’s in tax and accounting at American University every time I’ve seen her in the last four years. She’s even gone so far as to print and mail me the application the summer after my debut novel flopped and I resorted to tutoring kids for the SAT to make rent.

“For the last time, I don’t want to be an accountant.” “What’s so wrong with being an accountant?”

“I’ve told you, I don’t want to work an office job like you and Rory—” I know what she’ll say next. We’ve been hurling these lines at each other for years. “You’re too good for office jobs? Junie the Yalie won’t put

in a hard day’s work like the rest of us?” “Mom, stop.”

“Rory puts food on the table. Rory has a retirement account—”

“I make more than enough to live on,” I snap. “I’m renting a one-bedroom in Rosslyn. I have insurance. I bought a new laptop. I’m probably richer than Rory, even—”

“Then what’s the problem? What’s so important about this next book?” “I can’t rely on my old work,” I say, though I know I can’t make her understand. “I need to write the next best thing. And then another. Otherwise the sales will whittle down, and people will stop reading my work, and everyone will forget about me.” Saying this out loud makes me want to cry. I hadn’t realized how much this terrified me: being unknown, being forgotten. I sniffle. “And then when I die, I won’t have left any mark

on the world. It’ll be like I was never here at all.”

Mom watches me for a long while, and then places her hand on my


“Writing isn’t the whole world, Junie. And there’s plenty of careers

that won’t give you such constant heartbreak. That’s all I’m saying.”

But writing is the whole world. How can I explain this to her? Stopping isn’t an option. I need to create. It is a physical urge, a craving, like breathing, like eating; when it’s going well, it’s better than sex, and when it’s not, I can’t take pleasure in anything else.

Dad played the guitar during his off time; he understood. A musician needs to be heard; a writer needs to be read. I want to move people’s hearts. I want my books in stores all over the world. I couldn’t stand to be like Mom and Rory, living their little and self-contained lives, with no great projects or prospects to propel them from one chapter to the next. I want the world to wait with bated breath for what I will say next. I want my words to last forever. I want to be eternal, permanent; when I’m gone, I want to leave behind a mountain of pages that scream, Juniper Song was here, and she told us what was on her mind.

Only I don’t know what it is I want to say anymore. I don’t know if I ever did. And I’m terrified that the only thing I’ll ever be remembered for, and the only method by which I can produce good work, is slipping on someone else’s skin.

I don’t want to only be the vessel for Athena’s ghost.

“You could work with Aunt Cheryl,” Mom suggests, oblivious. “She’s still looking for an assistant. You could move out of DC—it’s too expensive anyhow. Come down to Melbourne with me—you could buy a whole house in Suntree with your earnings. Rory showed me—”

I gape at her. “You asked Rory for my tax returns?”

“We were just planning for your future.” Mom shrugs, unbothered. “So with what you have in savings now, it’s smart that you make some property investments. Cheryl has a few houses in mind—”

“Jesus, it’s precisely this . . .” I take a deep breath, force myself to calm down. Mom’s been like this since I was a child. Nothing short of a brain transplant will change her now. “I don’t want to have this conversation anymore.”

“You have to be practical, Junie. You’re young; you have assets.

You’ve got to take advantage of them—”

“Okay, stop, please,” I snap. “I know you’ve never supported my writing—”

She blinks. “Of course I supported your writing.”

“No, you didn’t. You hated it. You’ve always thought it was stupid, I get it—”

“Oh, no, Junie. I know what the arts are like. Not everyone’s going to make it big.” She rubs the top of my head, the way she did when I was a child, only now it doesn’t feel remotely comforting. A gesture like this, between adult women, can only be patronizing. “And I just didn’t want to see you get hurt.”

You'll Also Like