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Excerpt from ​Quiet Moments

Jamie Chua

He was the kind of beautiful that caused her eyes to stray from the critically acclaimed
novel in her lap. Too beautiful, her mother would say. Beautiful men wandered, better to have a
decent chap with a large nose who’ll keep your bed warm each night. Still, didn’t hurt to look.
So she looked, eyes lingering on the blue in his eyes, the graceful arcs of muscle, the straight
nose. He had with him a small book, a ratty navy blue thing that he kept flipping through, brow
furrowed. Some dictionary of sorts, she thought absently. How nimbly his fingers leafed through
the flimsy pages! And to think Gen would find him here, standing so still amidst the familiar
noise of dented metal lockers, murmured gossip, and sneakers upon linoleum flooring.
As she watched, the blue eyes looked around and seemed to stop upon hers. She held
her breath in wonderment as the smile began to spread beneath them, the blue eyes losing no
intensity as they floated closer and closer still. They stopped before her; magnificent and far
above her sitting down self. Calmly, she closed the novel over the bookmark of her finger,
raised an eyebrow.
Was this the moment she had seen, replayed in countless movies by countless actors?
Would he ask her to coffee or maybe about her critically acclaimed novel? Would he be nervous
and shy, would she blush, would she be cool through it all? Gen sunk into the magic of the
moment, the fluttering within her, the carefully arranged expression, the blue eyes. He bent
down a little, and she hoped to hear him over the soaring music in her head.
The blue eyes dipped into the navy blue book, and the lips moved in silent preparation.
She held her breath. Did he practice asking the Question the way Gen practiced her coy
answer? She watched him close the little book with one hand.
Carefully, considerately, he parted his practiced lips.
“Ni Hao. Wo neng he ni shuo zhong wen ma?” May I speak in Chinese with you?
It was an awkward mistake, tender and brittle to hold in the mind. In some ways, he had
purer intentions than she. She had looked at him, who was she to judge his looking at her? She
knew what he saw, all the assumptions inscribed in the straightness of her dark hair and her
different skin. Gen felt the flush in her face, the stiffened scowl. The beginning of a headache
erupted in her temple, the ringing beginning right on schedule. Convenient timing as ever.
His apologies came one two and three in dripping sincerity, but her unchanging
expression drew a strange mood from his blue eyes. He rubbed at them.
“Look, I said I was sorry, but it’s just practice-”
“Practice with a tutor then, do I look like free labor to you?”
His eyebrows flew into his hair, then settled into two soft curves upward artfully. The
Chinese character eight. Gen hated herself then for thinking that.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. Turned, walked off.
Why was she so bitingly rude? Her mother must have asked help of so many in her first
years, clutching some version of that tattered dictionary, stuttering her how’s and her you’s. Yet
Gen had turned so meanly upon the same favor in another’s mouth, bludgeoning that spirit of
learning so many chirpy textbooks ascribed to. Language sought to connect, but so often
divided instead. She looked down at her novel, sour-mouthed. Gen hadn’t seen past his blue
eyes, and he hadn’t seen past her Chinese.
Gen slipped two sparkly barrettes in her hair and three books into her rumpled knapsack.
She dug these items out from the bottom-most drawer of her bookshelf in the morning. After the
tinny school bell, Gen roamed the corridors confidently with her decorated head and
knowledgeable load. She arranged herself carefully over the ledge by the lockers, a book
spread casually across her skirt. Ten minutes into the break brought forth the blue eyes, winding
his way through the waves of crowd. Gen trained her gaze on the book and swung a leg over
the ledge.
Soon his shadow fell upon her lap.
“Hey. I’m still sorry about...yesterday.”
Gen thought about the barrettes in her hair as she flipped a page.
“I was presumptuous and rude. I really apologize.”
Gen hazarded a peek at his face. It looked sheepish enough she supposed. She sighed.
“Well, you were.”
“I know. Again, I’m sorry.”
“Yes. But I can’t fault you for trying to learn. There aren’t many places around here that
teach it.”
“Yes,” he nodded gratefully, “yes it’s true.”
Gen studied him, and realized small constellations of pink acne splayed across the bit of
exposed skin on his chest. She found this a tad too intimate to dwell on, and reached quickly
into her knapsack.
“Lucky for you, I happened to bring some old language books to recycle today. You can
study them if you’d like.”
His smile was lovely. She enjoyed looking at it.
“Thank you thank you. That’s tremendous of you.” What an odd thing to say. She
laughed, forgetting to keep with her regimented straight-faced program.
“I’m Harry.”
“Genevieve. Call me Gen.”
She held her phone tightly, this coded purse housing a precious string of numbers. She
would text him, see how the studying went. He wasn’t particularly special, not really. It’s just
that, no guy had ever apologized that many times to her before. She watched him wash away
into the crowd.
After school, when the teachers have meandered away and the other kids had skulked
off, Harry sat in an empty classroom, speaking. Gen burst in quickly and laughed to hear the
Chinese characters drying on his mouth. She greeted him.
“Ni hao, Harry.”
“Zhong wen te bie nan xue,” he lamented. Chinese was a hard language to learn.
“Wo zhi dao.” She knew.
They worked at it for an hour. Harry wound his way through the new characters,
successfully pronouncing the twenty new phrases. He was so pleased.
“I didn’t know I’d get this far in ten lessons. At this rate, I’ll be fluent in another month!”
Harry beamed at her gleefully. The pause that followed slid down Gen’s cheek.
His eyes turned complicated, sorry for something he didn’t yet understand. So Gen told
him. How awkward she felt, explaining to someone else that her world would soon lose its
sound. Tutoring would be decidedly harder without her hearing. She invited him to come to her
house anyway, speak with her parents instead. She sighed.
“Besides, my mom’s pronunciation is far better than mine.”
He looked sad. Harry dropped his pencil and swore. She felt very strongly about two
things at once.
“You shouldn’t swear,” she said, unconvincingly.
“Sorry,” he said, “It’s a nasty habit.”
They sat quietly for a little while. Harry watched her biting her lip, the small angry
puncture marks of things she wouldn’t say.
“You know, swearing’s awful fun. You should try it.”
She sat up in surprise.
They spent the afternoon in wild delight, trying out an assortment of words. She laughed
between mouthfuls of zippy sentences, making up quickly for how little she had tried. Long after
Harry had stopped, she kept right on, spitting out the colorful language in her own voice,
listening joyfully as it filled the space of the room.