No Me Gusta Col Rizada – A Short Story

Content Warning: This story contains mention of suicide. Reader discretion is advised. This is a work of fiction.

Photo by Cedric Letsch on Unsplash

In a little Italian neighborhood near the Coit Tower, a swath of green space invites families to sit on park benches with aesthetic spikes, keeping them empty. Some stray travelers use their time to read real books or eReaders; many play on their phones.  The locked public toilets hide behind green and gold painted metal – inaccessible monuments to the city ordinances against the homeless. On a light pole near the Washington Park toilets, hangs an Italian flag – acceptable ethnic pride in a city so focused on Pride.

Two large dogs – larger than their owners – try to distract each other by initiating play. The Bay’s blue water shimmers through the trees as Union Street heads downhill. Against a clear blue sky, the world maintains an invisible boundary: the city on one side, me on the other.

This boundary follows my neighbors when we enter stores, or avoids us on trains. It turns heads when I speak Spanish to those that speak it to me. It garners looks in even the Mission and Bernal Heights neighborhoods, depending on the street. Fuiste de mi vecina. Hablé el idioma de mi vecina. Planning outings, I hear people say they’re “just not comfortable taking public transit because of the people using it.” By “the people,” they mean anyone too poor to use Uber or Lyft – my neighbors, as they’re priced out of their homes. Anyone forced into homelessness by landlords taking advantage of the influx of affluent young people coming to the city, anyone hurt by those supporting and choosing to be part of the problem.

San Francisco culture obsesses over hustle and definitions of achievement, creating blinders for “focus.” I watch my coworkers and the people I thought I knew focus to the point of denying that anything bad ever happens here. They shun or punish those that dare try to draw their attention to something outside their minds. In our company’s Human Resources department, I watch as they “solve” problems by silencing employees that raise concerns rather than admitting any harassment incidents occur. The company wins workplace culture awards from a third party reviewer based on an employee survey none of us ever see.

My friends seek out cults of social acceptance on the weekends. Each event they attend promises their problems will go away and solve themselves with enough positivity (and denial). I hear them talk about the latest seminar over a group dinner. Mental illnesses are a mindset problem. Anxiety, depression, or anything else can only be solved by seeking out “your higher power” – the goals you wish to achieve rather than fall for this weakness. They discourage each other from seeking medical help. 

One friend throws himself in front of the commuter train. I imagine him, so positive that the only escape from the pain he felt powerless against was to throw himself in front of that train he shut down for four hours. His mother sobs over thousands of crackling miles of static and telephone lines. His mother lives in Vietnam. I meet her at SFO and pay for the Lyft to her hotel. We sit in silence in the back seat, and she reaches for my hand. “Sean was a good boy,” she whispers to me. I squeeze her hand, feeling the lump in my throat grow and choke out tears. She flies out two days later after collecting his remains and making arrangements for his belongings. I never hear about a funeral.

But the mantras continue for the others: yoga and kale cure everything, including major depressive episodes. Your higher power is what you wish to achieve. That causes people to throw themselves in front of trains. They tell me that I don’t understand. They tell me I’m not eating enough kale. I’m not doing enough yoga. In San Francisco, every conversation leads back to Yoga and Kale. No me gusta col rizada.

From the top of Twin Peaks, I gaze out at the sun reflecting off The Bay and compose my resignation letter. My brain can’t choose to ignore what I see. Closing my eyes, I imagine Sean with his mother – a pair I never saw in life. His beautiful mother, a refugee in America, now, a returned Việt Kiều, lives on without her son. Would my own parents return to the land that they fled? How far does this invisible boundary between water and sky extend? ¿Hasta dónde llegaría para echar agua en el mar?


If this story brought up any difficult feelings for you regarding suicide, please reach out to https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or call 1-800-273-8255 (USA). They are also available to chat 24/7/365

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Short Story: “Friday, I’m In Love”

Photo by Toimetaja tõlkebüroo on Unsplash – two people leaning on each other.

Disclaimer: The following story is based on true events, but the names of people, places, dates, and other identifiers have been changed to ensure anonymity. The only name left unchanged is my own.

I stared at Bea’s lips as they moved, half-registering the words as they vibrated the air molecules between us. The kettle clicked off, and she turned to the teacup and licorice tea. Her soft pale skin and hazel eyes glowed beneath a halo of an artificial burgundy pixie cut. I’d never had a crush like this before.

“Here now, this will help.”

I smiled as Bea passed me the piping cup, my sleeves pulled up over my hands as I wrapped my palms around the vessel and felt the warmth through the porcelain. Sitting dazed on her dorm bed with my eyes fixed into the cup of tea, the back of her hand pressed gently against the side of my face and forehead.

“Have you been to the clinic?”

I tried to speak, but my voice, entirely shot, sputtered; no words came out. Defeated, I shook my head.

“You’re sick, Lo.” Her head tilted, and she let out a sigh, raising half of her mouth in a way that I found more bewitching than any other woman I’d met in my life.

I looked up at her, unaware of my facial expression that resulted in her busting out laughing. It must have changed because she sat next to me on the bed, her own face changing in a way that I couldn’t understand. It lost energy – the expression fell into that chasm my brain can never quite figure out. Above us loomed a framed black and white image of The Cure – a gift from her absent mother. It had been a fun past time to look at the poster and try to guess if one was her dad based on her chin and height. Raised by her aunt and grandmother, she knew her mother had been a roadie and had gotten pregnant on their 1992 US tour.

“I’m leaving at the end of this semester.”

Pain blossomed in my chest as I forced eye contact, staring into the peaks and valleys of her hazel eyes. Bea contained an internal sun only visible upon close examination of her irises. Around her pupils flecks of golds and greens radiated out and emerged from a stormy brown-grey sea. I memorized her eyes as I waited for her to continue. When she began to speak, I focused on the bridge of her nose to try and appear as though I maintained eye contact while my attention shifted to my ears.

“I need to go home to Lennoxburg. My grandmother is sick, and,” she paused, “I don’t know if college is for me anyway.” Turning her head away from me, she stared at her door and lowered her head. “I’m not smart enough for this. First person in my family to try – first person in my family to fail.”

Inside my head, I screamed at myself, DO SOMETHING. Instead, I sat there with Bea in silence as I sipped licorice tea next to the most beautiful woman in the world. Attempting to will my body to do anything to tell her, a panic rumbled beneath the surface. What if she doesn’t like you back?

“You look so rough. Here – I’ll grab some of these tea bags and walk you back.”

Walking through the cold December air of that Friday evening, the world disappeared. At the front of the building, she insisted on walking me up to my room. Outside that door, she faced me and lifted both corners of her mouth and tilted her head. 

“Feel better, okay?” She hesitated, waiting. “I’m leaving Tuesday, so you probably won’t see me again.” And with that, she attempted to give me our first and last embrace before I retreated into the room, confused and hurt by it all.