- Sara Jhong
What Is and What Should Never Be, Letters To New York City
Updated: Sep 27, 2020
By Sara Jhong
The year is 1950—my grandfather is thirteen and if he does not
make the train in the next seven and a half minutes, he will die.
Seven and a half minutes.
There is a photograph of a woman in his back pocket—
she is slender, she is beautiful, she is dead.
There is a young woman to his left, maybe 35. Her screaming echoes with a melodic
compulsion—nourished by unsung requiems—it twists young boys’ faces
into those of veterans, aloof to her misery. Their eyes give them away.
The bridge is on fire and its crumbling corpse coughs up ash and defeat.
The woman running to the right of him carries
a baby who will not stop screaming because she’s feeding it
the grotesque remains of a country on fire: it is all she has left to give.
He doesn’t know any English except for “combat zone;”
the thousands of breathless people running beside him
seem all-together committed to one collective thought,
“get out of the combat zone,”
“get out of the combat zone,”
The man sprinting the wrong way, screams for his wife—
his dramatic turbulence causes rifts in the crowd.
He parts the masses screaming her name: the last thing he will ever say.
He bumps into him, frantic and afraid, dropping two train
tickets from his blood-wrapped hand. He doesn’t pick them up and
no one tells him to leave her behind.
The girl running next to him is about his age, maybe older,
and she has one arm. Where her arm is missing her shoulder is
bloody and torn apart: an exhibition of her paralysis.
But she is not thinking about her missing arm, or the parents
that are supposed to be running alongside her. She is thinking
“the train is coming.”
He knows because he thinks it too.
The country is bleeding and the bridge is burning and
a man, half-delirious, is screaming in garbled Korean about
getting out of the combat zone. But how can you get out of the combat zone when
it rings in every screaming baby’s voice;
sits in your back pocket with a woman rendered two-dimensional;
drips crimson from little girls’ missing arms;
echoes in the cage of your heart because you cannot
get out of a combat zone when it is in you.
How do you get out of a country on fire?
How do you not burn your fingers on the flame that sits inside you?
The train is coming.
People’s faces are so close together that they can feel short breath upon the backs of their necks and they don’t care, because with each sign of relief there is a face pressed up against the train glass window screaming to being let inside, screaming that she has children, screaming that he has a family, screaming that she is a mother, screaming that he is a son, screaming that she deserves to live, screaming that he is somebody, and the train windows don’t care. They take all their screaming breath on the glass and let it rise: smoke above the ashes.
No one cares that the country is on fire—no one cares that its people are too.
The year is 2002—it is 4:02 in the morning
and she is screaming, because in seven and half minutes, the baby is coming.
Seven and a half minutes
I am pounding baby fists against the walls of my mother’s stomach.
She is screaming that I am hurting her and in the dead of night, I scream that I am hurting too.
Dad tries to start the car but we are poor even before me,
so when the engine sputters and laughs at him,
he says he sees me in the rearview mirror: Slender, beautiful and dead.
Dad piles mom into the van with no seats and as much as the van
creaks and aches, she hurts more.
Nobody wants to give their baby girl the inside of a van
as the beginning of the world, even if it’s all she has to give.
He goes a hundred on the freeway—a higher number than
he can count to in English. There are no other cars on the road,
except a car speeding down the highway in the other direction,
blasting “then what’s to stop us, pretty baby, but what is and what should never be.”
He presses harder on the gas.
Mom in the back of the van is screaming, clutching the side of the wall.
There is a singing compulsion in the bottom of her voice
that whispers that they will not make it—
there’s too many miles, not enough minutes,
too much baby girl to fit inside a one-star motel.
He hears it too.
The van creaks down the highway so fast that the interstate is on fire.
The stench of burning rubber and the glow of headlights illuminating
the empty road echoed in his heart like requiems for lives he cannot lose.
He’d part the seas for the girl he’s been dying to meet and
the woman who’s been dying holding her.
Mom doesn’t have the heart to tell him they won’t make it:
the baby is coming now and she loves us all just too much.
The hospital is still two miles away and the van can only go so fast
and mom is screaming in the back because “it hurts.”
But he knows that she is half-delirious and they’ve just got to get
out of the combat zone, out of the combat zone. And he has never
experienced this before, but it feels so familiar
Maybe because she is slender, and she is beautiful.
Maybe because he is driving the van down an interstate on fire,
running to catch a train that he knows he cannot make.
Maybe because the baby is coming, the baby is coming.
The baby is coming.
My grandfather and I, we both made it.
The transcendence of time flows through the both
of us and there lies an unwavering solemn understanding
between the two of us, that time takes things from people and gifts it to others—
it watches faces pressed against glass windows and looks at their lives,
their families, their sons and daughters, themselves, and still lets them burn;
It watches mothers and fathers try to beat clocks in races they cannot win,
watches their hearts on the line, their hearts be broken, and still lets them lose.
She is the cruelest mistress for it takes
seven and a half minutes to remember to be kind,
and she does not have that kind of time.
Letters To New York City
11/14/06: I was an angry four-year old
It wasn’t the first time you said things I could not grasp; mine were baby hands,
grasping for straws of drinks I did not want to put into my body. New York City was an origami folded town made of
glass people far more important than I and still not important at all: existentialism made me a felon.
12/23/06: There is a Barnes and Nobles on 17th street
Children begin their series of “terrible” behaviors when they realize
mommy and daddy don’t like everything they like,
and the terrible begin testing the limits of this parental boundary.
That would’ve been my explanation for having stolen The Little Prince from the bookstore on 17th if you ever noticed. You didn’t notice. That night, you read me the story unknowingly, the space inside my chest
inflating within me, feeling far away—a little planetary.
4/16/08: The Midtown Subway
The train car lurched forwards as it so often does, and I watched as the pretty ring
on your fourth tightrope finger fly past a museum of glass people and roll down the carriage.
We rode the train to the end of the line with you on your knees, muttering how you would not let another thing be lost.
I remember walking back, all having glittered gone, with your hands wrapped a little too tight around mine,
your cold fingers bare.
7/18/08: She works on 31st street
I stood perched by the staircase as I watched the crimson drip down your face and
splatter onto the plain white dress you wore— I thought the red made it prettier.
You opened your mouth to reveal bloodied, shattered teeth—then a bit wider to explain how they stole and
ran and how you chased them, how they smashed your face into the sidewalk. I went to bed that night,
dreaming of a perfect set of front teeth sitting on the sidewalk of 31st street.
5/17/14: Sixth Grade Political Debates
“What if they get the wrong guy?” I demanded.
Middle school teachers insisted concurrently that “they” would never get the wrong guy, but I think about
how New York City stole from you. Your ring and your teeth and your pride
lie in the city of ash. How I stole from New York City just to see if I was loud enough, and it drowned me in
10/11/18: Court of Criminals
New York City, I’m not a fan of guerrilla warfare—but I do not expect anything less from jungles.
I think I should have died. New York City, you could’ve killed me: I stole from you.
You should’ve killed me. But I think it is important to self-sentence in the city that swallows everything
Sara Jhong is a high school junior attending Great Neck South High School on Long Island, New York. She is the print editor in chief of her school's student-based newspaper and also manages the Op-Ed section of the paper. She is devoted to journalism and literature and hopes to continue to write in the future.