Issue 1: Journey
Issue 1: Journey
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. â€“ Aristotle
Founding Creative Director Tasneem Motala Acquistions Editor Heba Illustrator Gabrielle Social Media Manager Allyson Aritcheta Contributors William Tham Robbie Ahmed
Isabella Jaime Diya Sathi
All interview profiles for contributors were conducted, fact-checked, and written by Allyson Aritcheta. KROS Magazine, Issue 1, Journey. Published January 2018. All material is ÂŠ to the authors, artists, and KROS Magazine.
The Scent of Dry Dust
disturbance (with you)
Author Interview with
While growing up in Malaysia, William Tham used to travel to Kuala Selangor via coastal roads that were long-forgotten due to the highways that popped up around the peninsula. The roads leading to the town, famous for having one of the largest firefly colonies of the world, is where majority of The Scent of Dry Dust takes place. “I have a love of quiet, bypassed places, and a story about missed connections felt so natural in that particular setting,” Tham, now living in Vancouver, says. On the side of a coastal road near Kuala Selangor, the unnamed protagonist, who works in an inorganics lab, waits for a tow truck with his old friend, Ling, a doctor that needs adventure. While they wait, the friends discuss their lives and ambitions. As the story shifts between past and present, the protagonist’s past is revealed, and Ling’s role in his life is called into question.
Tham, the non-fiction editor of Vancouver-based, Asian Canadian focused Ricepaper Magazine, wrote the story about two old friends based on “experiences of unrequited love and the uncertainty over missed connections” as an undergraduate. Tham says, “A lot of my fiction is semi-autobiographical. I find it easier and more accurate to modify real experiences and conversations than to invent them from scratch.” The story also helped him address his fears surrounding the “quarter-life trap,” where life after university isn’t any clearer, there’s a possibility that one could still find themselves in a position that makes them unhappy, and the struggle of achieving independence begins despite all of these existential issues. Tham notes, “[These are] Millennial problems, of course, but I felt better after fictionalizing these fears.” For the rest of William Tham’s inspiring interview, check out our blog @ krosmagazine.com
The Scent of Dry Dust NOW “Do you think she will miss you?” Ling asked. Inside the car it was hot and sticky and there was a film of dust everywhere, perfumed with a touch of sweat and the dissipating sterile cool of the air-con. Outside the opaque haze was settling thickly over the road, blown in by strong winds from across the straits. Instead of being stranded by the side of an empty coastal road somewhere outside Kuala Selangor, we could have been stuck in a fog straight out of a horror movie while awaiting the arrival of the tow truck. Perhaps the mechanics we called for were lost, missing the signs in the gloom and racing south to Johor instead. I shrugged. “Connie’s not back until tonight. She rarely asks where I am. I don’t ask her either.” “She’s unusual,” Ling said, her arms crossed. “She isn’t having an affair or something, is she?” “I don’t know. Maybe,” I said, staring ahead through the dusty windshield. STATE OF EMERGENCY, the newspapers screamed. They were delivered to my house that morning by a delivery man with a face mask and goggles, emerging like a ghost from the eerie orange light. Everyone was advised to stay indoors until further notice. “Why are you still seeing me?” Ling asked. “Why not?” I replied. “We’re friends.” This was not the first time that we had had the same conversation, the same words leaking back into the space that we shared, whether it was at the 24-hour mamaks in Suria Aman or any of the trails that dotted the suburbs. How long had it been since we had first met? Ten years, I realised. It had been a long time and we were no longer as young as we were when we first said hello, full of dreams that would take us in opposing trajectories. 11
THEN After the both of us returned from our studies we met up once more. She was in a blue dress and we were up in one of the rooftop bars that overlooked the city below us, parades of light and illusions swirling endlessly around as if we were in an impossible dream. She was hopeful and alive then; there were no thin lines around her mouth yet. She had the backing of a degree that she obtained after five careful years of study, and showed me the photographs of her on the steps of a prestigious university hundreds of years old, where she had somberly shaken hands with a magisterial chancellor. “Here’s to us,” Ling said as she toasted me, the rims of our glasses clinking together. Things were quiet that night, there was barely anyone else around. I had an electric, stupid impulse to lean forward and kiss her, but after so long apart there was nothing I could do but to smile and tell her that I was looking forward to starting work at last, ready to make my own mark in the crowded city. “It’s like yuanfen, isn’t it, the both of us meeting up again after so long? We’ve gone our opposite ways in different parts of the world and in the end we both meet in the same building where we danced together at prom.” “You’ll join Connie and me for dinner, won’t you?” I asked hopefully as we prepared to leave after dinner. “Hard to say la. But it shouldn’t be a problem. You know how it is nowadays, there are so many young doctors around that they just sit around the hospital doing nothing while the seniors make their rounds.” “Please? You are one of the few friends I’ve kept in touch with.” “Hey, you’ll be busy with Connie,” Ling laughed. “Don’t let me ruin your date!” I insisted on paying, but in the end we split
the bill and returned to the ground floor. I thought of Connie, on a trip up north with her sister. Perhaps they were already discussing the details of our future lives. We were a good match, one moving up the ladder in an inorganics laboratory, the other working in the liaison office at a local university. But more than anything I knew that it was a shared life of convenience—neither of us was entirely sure who else we could live together without too much fuss. “You’ll still keep in touch, yeah?” I said as I walked her towards her car. “Connie will get jealous,” Ling sighed. “You men really have a lot to learn.” NOW “Are you still writing nowadays?” “Just a little,” I admitted. I hadn’t written much in the past few years, just a few short stories that I sent out now and again, most of them ending up in the slush pile of a publisher’s office. “I’m out of ideas. You know how I always wanted to write something like 2046, about life imitating art, and art imitating life? Well I can’t do it right now—I have no idea how to tell that story.” “Here’s some inspiration that you could use. See that black Mercedes racing past us? Who’s the man inside it, hunched behind the wheel? Why is he racing through the evening haze?” “I just thought of my supervisor at the lab. His name is Cheong and he’s a real jerk. Maybe that’s him driving away fast.” “Is something on his mind, is he worried about anything?” “He’s secretly an assassin, off to silence a lawyer or something.” “That’s not exactly what I had in mind, but if you like it then you can write it out. ” “And what about you, Ling? Do you remember that book you were telling me about all those years ago? You wanted to find
out more about your own past and write it all down.” “I gave up on that long ago,” she said, lips pursed. “That was someone else’s dream.” “Well, keep it. It’s yours.” “I do think about it sometimes,” she said, “I seriously tried to write down everything I knew when I got temporarily sent out to Sarawak. I was stationed in the pedalaman. The people were kind but the evenings were long. Under dim electric lights I tried to write down details. Like grandad napping in a wicker chair on drowsy afternoons in the back-room under a fan, still holding on to his Nanyang Siang Pau. He could have been a regular dockyard coolie on a ship bound for Malaya, a member of the Triads, or a disgraced Qing bureaucrat. I decided to work on my own story, trying to figure out how I ended up as a doctor in the jungles. After my father died my mother was the one who had brought me up, until some sympathetic relatives in London offered to pay for my studies.” “Why didn’t you finish it?” “I didn’t see any point. I was just an ordinary woman with an ordinary life. So I put it aside. Perhaps I’ll go back to it someday, but for now there are more important things happening around me.” “Like politics and inflation.” “And my mother nagging me about getting married. She has been pointing out new candidates every time I go back to visit her.” “Anyone interesting?” I find myself grinning. “Ha, someone’s jealous! Well, if you’re interested, I’ve been seeing a friend of my cousin for some time. He runs a chain of hipster cafes in converted shophouses in the PJ Old Town. His name’s Teik Boon and he studied Graphic Design in Melbourne. He doesn’t make much money, but his father’s generous. He’s a nice guy. I haven’t shown you any photos of him, have I?”
“Doubt it. You never talk much about your personal life. The last time person you talked about was Eddie. He was the engineer, wasn’t he?” “That was years ago, Eddie’s dating an Indian girl from Seremban now. He’s with KTM, they’re still seriously planning to build the bullet train from Singapore to KL and they want him aboard. We still keep in touch sometimes.” “I never knew much about Connie’s past,” I admitted. “She never really told me anything. To her everything exists in the here and now, she prefers not to talk about it. We only ever talk about practical things and money and politics, I can’t talk to her about the times I had spent wandering from Tokyo to Shanghai to Singapore, I mean, I can talk and she will listen, but other than that there’s so little that we have in common that it makes no sense at all. Sometimes I think that we live together because the alternative is to be on our own, but it’s too uncertain for either one of us.” Ling had no reply for once. THEN It had been three years since Connie had moved in with me, the both of us renting a house in Bandar Utama, in a part of the neighbourhood that seemed reserved for transient residents. Shoes dotted the porch of the next-door house, filled with students who partied each weekend, while construction workers renovating Professor Ahmed’s house sometimes climbed the gates to steal a few pairs. In that house we collected the reminders of our confused lives. She had a glamorous black-and-white photograph of herself on the steps of a colonial shophouse in Taiping which she displayed in the cabinet, but she never told me the name of the photographer; and I filled the shelves with a collection of books scrounged from book
sales at the university, tracing the history of Malaysia from Parameswara to Pak Lah. At dinner our conversations rarely varied—over gai lan and eggs with shrimp I would complain about the supervisor and venture occasionally into politics while she mused about finances and layoffs and the unions that threatened to disrupt classes if they weren’t given raises. The subject of potential marriage was never broached, as in truth we had never been sure what to make of each other. I had fallen out of touch with Ling for a few years, starting from the time she had departed for the interior for a couple of years. She was barely online and phone reception was sketchy at best, and I occasionally received an email with photographs of her and the village children, and once she breathlessly spoke about her weekend in Kuching where she had been invited to a paediatric conference, later drinking tea on the banks of the Sarawak River while listening to stories being spun by an ancient man who claimed to be the illegitimate son of the last Rajah with his vaguely Caucasian features as evidence. But soon she vanished from contact . And then I ran into Ling by accident one day. I was down at the malls that I frequented on the weekends that Connie was away in Singapore or Johor, negotiating and dining with her counterparts while I took a break from the sad fumes of the lab. She was alone and more lovely than I remembered, although she was no longer as young. I waved tentatively from the escalator, wondering if she recognised me, uncertain if it was the right person, but after a moment’s hesitation she hurried across to meet me. We spoke, we laughed, the day swept past quickly. I don’t remember much of our conversations. She quickly brought me up to speed on her life, suddenly finding herself cemented in an apartment in SS2 where she
commuted to work at the hospital every day with a sad-eyed orderly who once asked her out before she politely turned him down, but continued to give her rides to the hospital so that he could save on his petrol bill. She never wanted to be back in PJ again, she told me as we dined at a Japanese restaurant over the strains of string instruments. Her whole life had been spent wanting to be somewhere else, escaping the suburbs to which she and her mother had been condemned “I want something impossible,” she said as the Filipino waiter in a kimono came over to refill our porcelain mugs with more tea, “I want to travel. I want to be back in London one day, but for now that’s not going to happen. When I was there in the summers I worked and saved up some money to travel, crossing the Channel to Paris and then to Berlin and Rome. For a while I thought that my life would keep looking up from then on, that I wouldn’t have to come back here. But apart from those two years in Sarawak I haven’t been anywhere else, I am here in PJ again and there’s no chance of going anywhere for the time being. I know, it sounds vapid and spoiled, you know, first world problems and all of that, but I just hoped that I could still keep wandering.” “Maybe someday you’ll be back there again.” Her brows knitted together as she smiled wryly. “My mother is getting old,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I’m not going anywhere.” It was refreshing to talk to someone different again. I had hardly seen anyone since Connie and I moved in, and those friends I had made as a boy now led different lives. The outlandish ones went on to become actors and models, others quietly decided to return to the classrooms they had once sat in, teaching brand-new faces trigonometry, while others married their childhood sweethearts right out of school and the lucky ones moved to Melbourne, populating my news feed with
photographs of day trips to the beach and high-flying vacations. I just spoke, telling her about Connie and my job and found myself revisiting my student adventures. Those crazy days of being young and restless. I recalled the parties on King Edward Avenue where we had cooked up maggi goreng and Hainanese chicken rice and buttered prawns, laughing in anticipation of the skiing holidays that we would embark on. But those times were past and we were all back where we started. “We’ll meet up sometime, yeah?” I told Ling as we left for the night, as the shops began to close. “Somehow I don’t think Connie will be very happy with that,” Ling said with a hint of exasperation. “We’re friends,” I said bracingly. “Why not?” She considered my words for some time. NOW “I don’t think the haze is going to clear anytime soon,” she said. “Perhaps it will always be like this—we’ll have to celebrate whenever it’s a blue-sky day.” Already the sun was starting to set and the gloom pressed in even more thickly around us. How long had it been since it settled thick and ominously over the city? In the sinuous curling of smoke I found myself picturing a lifetime of possibilities that would terminate that evening when Connie arrived home to find out that I was missing. Damn that tow truck for being so slow! “What will she do if she finds out you’re not in?” Ling asked. “She’ll call me,” I replied, “and I’ll tell her that I’m out with a mutual friend. But you know she won’t buy that.” “I’ve only met her twice and we got along well. But I see what you mean. Has she ever suspected anything?”
“Hey. It’s not like anything’s going on between us. All we ever do is talk. That’s it. And what about you and Teik Boon?” “Teik Boon’s a good man.” Ling was smiling as she said this. “And last week he asked me to marry him.” “You never said anything about this!” I hide a simmering blow to my stomach. “Congratulations. Where and when will the wedding be?” Ling looks uncertain. “I don’t know about this,” she ultimately says. “It feels too soon, but the thing is that Teik Boon has ambition. He’s not the kind of person who will stay trapped here where he is. He wants to get out even if that means throwing everything to the wind. It will be like reaching for the stars in a rocket without looking back to earth—you’re just racing forward without a care.” “You should go with him,” I said. “You’ve spent years talking about wanting an opportunity like this, and now that it’s in your hands you need to go for it. Besides, you know what things are like right now. People just seem so poor nowadays, it’s like they can hardly afford to live on what they have.” “And you? Are you and Connie happy?” “Happy… We are comfortable, yes, we never quarrel. But the truth being said is that we have so little in common sometimes that we are like strangers. I don’t expect to ever really know her. It is like she is lost in a place that I can never reach. It’s not the same thing with you, there are so many levels on which we can click, but…” “But what?” “Never mind.” A police car races past us quickly, heading somewhere I know nothing about. Perhaps it is bound for the city; there has been a spate of new crimes recently. Perhaps I will turn all of this into a story, this grim mood encasing the country and a nation of people weary
and suspicious of all the uncertainty that surrounded them. THEN All those meetings with Ling, quietly orchestrated and leaving no trace behind other than a short phone call and a depleted petrol tank, were like a shot of adrenaline straight to my veins. For a while I could pretend that I was young again. But after a while I would be brought back to earth after Ling left, by myself in the cold car as I joined the traffic on the LDP back home. I was too old to start over again as life shuddered into stagnation like the dying engine of my Toyota. During all this time, I suspected that Connie knew about Ling and me. There was one night that I got home late, still bearing the guilty scent of perfume. Once I crossed the threshold I told Connie, in her study surrounded by the detritus of her work, that I had been with my sister at a convenient mamak restaurant. She looked at me blankly before returning to her work. Silence had become so commonplace between us. So we slowly drifted apart. NOW An hour passes in near silence, Ling and I breathing in the scent of dry dust. Still no sign of the tow truck. I have called them repeatedly but the operator always apologises. There is a lot of traffic today, boss, lots of accidents because of the haze. And the tow truck that was supposed to help you kena langgar by someone, we are going to dispatch a new one soon… “You will come to the wedding, won’t you?” she asks as the sodium street lights glow. “Hmm?” “It’s in a few months’ time, over at the Federal Hotel. Do bring Connie with you, alright?” “Of course. Anything to allay any suspicions she might have.”
“Aiya, you are really too practical.” “Should I bring ang pows too?” “Money would be much appreciated,” Ling laughs. “If Teik Boon is to open another branch on Kallang Road he’ll need a lot more capital.” “Of course we’ll need to get off the roadside first.” “I’m on call and if a patient needs me I can’t just be stuck waiting here for a phantom tow truck.” Another police car goes by outside the window. “There’s a word in Chinese that I use all the time. Yuanfen. Do you know what that means?” she asked. I shook my head. The language was never my strong suit. “It ties together destiny and fate and love and relationships, everything rolled into one. I’ve always liked the way it sounded—it seemed to describe the entire world. Such a beautiful word.” After that we fell into another brief silence. “Hey,” Ling said at last. “It was never difficult to sense how you really feel about me.” “Sorry.” “But,” she continued, suddenly looking pensive, “it’s sometimes nice to imagine if things had turned out differently. We did have a good time together. You understand what I’m saying, don’t you?” Yes. I turned away from the haze to look at her, I think I do.
In 2015, Isabella Jaime began doodling on scrap pieces of paper with ballpoint pens. During this time, the 27-year-old social worker was also taking care of her ninang, who fell ill. The piece she created while doodling on her ninang’s couch with a Sharpie was Neptuna, one of her first drawings. Its underwater theme hides a figure, and its title is inspired by the Pixies song, “Mr. Grieves.” Jaime, who is Filipino-American and currently learning Tagalog, has always drawn in black and white. “I think my drawings in black and white tend to have a sort of dark, surreal feeling,” Jaime says. “The colour versions seem more ‘fun,’ as I like to use bright colors.” The self-taught artist says that it’s a learning process when it comes to making colour versions of her drawings.
Having lived in Russia, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, and Canada, Robbie Ahmed has lived in and experienced many cultures. A favourite childhood experience of his while growing up in Bangladesh is re-enacting Titanic scenes with family members whenever they would visit his grandparents in Barisal by boat. Currently working part-time as a youth group and workshop facilitator with Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention in Toronto, the 25-year-old is trying to find a balance between all of his passions. Starting his creative journey at open mics performing spoken word, Ahmed has since branched into music, poetry, and writing. In fact, his story Trans*mutation is a transformed version of one of his spoken word pieces. Whenever Ahmed would perform his spoken word piece that was inspired by his experiences as a trans man, audience members would approach him and ask what happened next. Rooted in his memories of facing family in Bangladesh after sharing that he is trans, Ahmed found that the piece needed expanding. “It started with the thoughts and feelings of being in the moment of that scene, and coming to the conclusion that being trans is okay. It was basically a written stream of consciousness,” says Ahmed. “So, I thought maybe I need to write it as a story instead of just a moment.” In addition to addressing post-performance queries, Ahmed wanted to write a story that empowered trans people. When he was younger, Ahmed was obsessed with the X-Men, and some of the themes within the series arise in his story. “It’s the whole idea that they’re different, but there’s advantages that come with that,” Ahmed says. “I played on the idea that there’s some kind of advantage to being trans.”
For the rest of Robbie Ahmed’s inspiring interview, check out our blog @ krosmagazine.com
Mutation (noun)—the act or process of mutating; change; alteration... Most mutations are known to have harmful effects or as defects, but some can increase an organism’s ability to survive. Synonyms—change, changeover, conversion, metamorphosis, shift, transfiguration, transformation, translation, transmutation, trans… I came out as trans at the age of 13, when an open dictionary conveniently fell from the bookshelf of my parents’ bedroom to my feet, exposing the word “transsexual” at the top left corner of the page. Amidst the countless green and glossy-plastic covered books my mother brought from her trips to Pakistan or Mecca that answered questions on whether science had proven Islam, or whether brushing your teeth while fasting was sunnah, it was the first time living in my house in Saudi Arabia that I saw the the word “sexual’ without a religious subtext. Like every curious teenager, I read its definition: Trans*sexual (noun)—a person who feels like they belong as the member of the opposite sex, often seeking surgery. Grasping the page, I reread the word I spent years looking for. A word that finally explained why it took me so much longer after each shower, trying to bind the growing lumps on my chest with multiple layers of tight T-shirts. Or the times I hid in the changeroom during swim classes to never wear a bathing suit. Or why I refused to use any pronouns in my diary when referring to myself. A word that explained my need to cry into my pillow, hoping I would wake up as a boy, while my step-sister would lie on her bed from across our shared bedroom, and tell me tips on how to look like a pretty girl and attract boys that she found in Cosmopolitan magazines during her time studying in the US. Trans was the word that explained why I had a million secrets, although I only had one.
The last time I came towards a word that was somewhat close to it was a few years ago when I hit puberty. My mother handed me a book with a pink cover showing teenage girls from the 80’s. It was titled So You Are a Girl Now. Aside from various anatomically correct pictures of the vagina, which I had already seen on the walls of my mother’s clinic, I found a chapter on homosexuality next to a photo of a tan drag queen from Brazil. She was wearing a fruit hat that I assumed was a reference to Carmen Carrera. I remember looking at her heavy powdered makeup on her masculine jaw and feeling so alienated from that drag queen, like I could not relate. I was not an impersonator; I was a man. Even the word “lesbian” on the next page—which did define my attraction—had a connotation so feminine that I could not claim it. I closed the book and never looked at it again. Trans was that word that encompassed my inner feelings of discomfort and explained the deep need in me to rip at my skin to erase parts that I perceived as female. I bookmarked the page of the dictionary, deciding to come back to it later when my parents left for their late-evening shopping, which they held off till the scorching heat of the Arabian sun subsided. That evening, I watched my mother stand in front of the mirror, as she clipped on her abaya and adjusted her headscarf studded with black beaded designs, a fashion trend that was becoming increasingly popular by women there. I kissed her bye on the cheek, and closed the door behind her. I waited for a few minutes for the key sounds of the front door to open in case she forgot something, before rushing upstairs to the computer. I remember my stepfather bragging at the dinner table earlier, “I locked the password this time with a series of numbers and letters, so
that none of you kids can remember it.” I chuckled to myself as I sipped my soup, knowing that neither would he. I knew he must have had it written down somewhere. Upstairs, I opened the drawer of the computer table. Running my hand across clips, calling cards to Bangladesh, and extra computer mice and cables, I pulled out my mother’s little leather phone book. Opening to the back page, I found a combination of numbers and letters. After typing the first set in, I pressed enter and the computer unlocked. Surprised at the ease of getting to the homescreen, I held off the celebration. I still needed to get past the country’s regional restrictions. With the censorship at that time of pictures of faces of men and women standing next to each other for perfume ads on billboards and magazines, getting access to sites on gender change was a far reach. I typed the first keyword into the search engine, and a few pages loaded. I clicked on the first one listing “Successful Transmen.” A list of dozens of men with their pictures and occupations appeared on the screen. I scrolled down the 3-page list, and read their stories. There were men who started hormones, were bodybuilders, scientists, and men who even found love and got married. I was not alone. I took a print-out of the page and hid it in my desk drawer under lock. I wanted to hold on to it to remind me when I moved to another country, crossing the ocean to start anew, with a new life, new identity and people around me, that I too someday would be one of the men on that list. ~ Ten years from that day, at the age of 23, I find myself back in my country, Bangladesh, standing in my uncle’s house in sheer confusion about my identity. In an hour I am to be
called downstairs for dinner to announce my agreement to an arranged marriage and renounce my identity as a transman claiming it to be a mistake ingrained in me by “Western ideals.” With my trimmed short hair and buttoned up shirt, it has been over 5 years since I shuddered at the sound of my own birth name. I swore to myself I was never going to be back here again, but a phone call from my father a few days prior made me take the flight. “I need you to come back. You have to sign papers as a guarantor to release a shipping stuck at the dock. Without you, I will lose my business. I beg you please. It is my last request,” he pleaded. From the top of the stairs, hearing my father talking to our family friends in the living room, I realize there are no papers. “Mahmood bhai, I need your advice. I asked Aurora to come back to Dhaka. She has been saying she wants to become a boy,” I hear my father say. “What are you saying to us, Nadir bhai?” my aunt gasps at accusations made against her favorite A-student who only wears baggy clothes, and is unlike those spoiled “modern” girls of whom she warns her daughter Nadia. “She has been spending time with these Canadian gay friends,” my father clarifies. “She said she wants to pursue medical surgery by Canadian doctors. I know she will not listen to me, but she will listen to you. She respects you. You have been like godparents to her.” “You must be mistaken,” she denies in fear that her daughter too must have known about it all along, and although she personally sympathizes with the third gender community in Bangladesh and regularly donates to them, she fears that her growing suspicions of her daughter being romantically involved with a transman all these years are true. “We have to call her downstairs to talk to us,
Bhai,” she says. Hearing the exchange, I squat to my knees, wrapping my arms around them. I dig my fingers deeper into my legs, hoping that the physical sensation of pain would somehow make me disappear from this moment. I am stuck in a nightmare of facing my entire family in my country with no way out. Rocking back and forth, my mind races through solutions. Should I call my friends in Canada? Can I call a taxi to the airport? I start to feel small and suffocated. The only memory my mind flashbacks to is myself in a gay bar with my friends belting to “I Will Survive,” lip-synced by drag queens. We have our arms around each other, holding on to every ounce of freedom that Canada made us pay for with hard work and rejection. All of it was going to be gone now. What if I never see them again? Here I am torn between two worlds—one where I am a self-made man with my selfmade family of queers and allies, and the other where I am a woman in desperate struggle to cling to my family and roots. Have I made it this far to lose it all? I turn to my ex-girlfriend, Nadia, the only person in my country to know about me being trans. She spent the entire evening sitting in silence cross-legged on the mattress with a pillow against her chest, as she flips the channel from one to another. She too could hear my father’s words. Without taking her eyes off the screen, I could hear her mutter under her breath, “I can’t believe your father is doing this.” Those are the only few words I have heard her say to me this whole evening. Even when the TV fails to fill the silence, she stands up and goes to the bathroom to call her fiancé. I could not blame her, she has her reasons to be mad. Five years ago, she saw me off at the airport.
I was leaving to start my life in Canada. I remember her eyes were red and swollen behind her glasses from crying and not sleeping for days filming me a goodbye video. “You will come back for me, right?” she asked, knowing that although she was upset, she was the one who pushed me to apply abroad. I squeezed her hand and agreed, but as the boarding officer announced my name, I hurried to the gate, eager to start my life in Canada. A few months into Canada, I called to tell her I was seeing a bisexual tattoo artist, who was proud to hold my hand on a bus, unlike her who would say that she rather take it to the grave than let anyone know she liked a transman. For a girl who promised to always honour her parents’ wishes to marry whom they chose for her, I no longer wanted to be “a curse she loved,” but here I was in front of her again. “I want to kill myself.” I turn to her as my tears sting the path they paved down my cheeks. “This is the end.” “Don’t you dare say things like that, okay?” she snaps and throws the remote against the bed. Turning to finally look me in the eyes, her head trembles with anger and disappointment. “You are better than this.” ”Then please make me a girl just for a day,” I beg her.”I want to know what it would be like if I made a different choice.” From the weight of her sigh and her sheer willingness to engage, I know that long before our relationship, we were best friends who finished off each other’s thoughts and that was the part both of us could not erase. “Fine,” she reluctantly agrees. She rolls her eyes and a small smirk forms across her face. A part of her doesn’t want to pass the opportunity to put makeup on her ex-boyfriend. We go full out with push-up bras, red lipstick, fake eyelashes, hair bands, a red dress,
and heels—all the items we could find that could fit on my slightly bigger frame. In her changeroom, I slowly watch myself transition back into the femininity I so ran from. We take duck-face selfies as I strike the only poses I know from seeing girls on social media—the side face, hand on the hip, and of course the top-down shot. Nadia and I laugh like the old times when we would take pictures together by the lake after school, except this time both of us are in dresses. “How do you feel?” Nadia asks me while I stare at the picture of a girl that vaguely resembles my mother—a girl who could have made my parents happy. I can’t answer as deep sadness starts to envelop me. I stare at my parents’ broken dream. I am broken, defected. Why couldn’t I just be attracted to men? Why couldn’t I just be what they wanted? Maybe then I would earn their love. Maybe then I wouldn’t be in this mess. “She is everything they want me to be,” I say. “Robbie, she wouldn’t survive,” Nadia tells me. “She wouldn’t survive, as she would be stuck here, like me, where the only future is to be married to some man my parents picked for me. You are alive today because of who you are. Your friends, your life, education, this freedom by running to new country—all came because you are trans. Being a heterosexual woman would not change your family’s divorce, the abuse, or your brother’s suicide. All would still be there. In fact, not being born that way is the reason you are alive despite it all.” She is right. The girl in the picture would not stand a chance in a world still run by misogyny and patriarchy. She would still be lost in her unfortunate disposition like many women in my country who struggle each day. Being a cis- or heterosexual woman or man that my parents wanted me to be wouldn’t protect me from problems of race, class, education, or
gender. In fact, being different is what gives me the courage and the knowledge to defy all these things and create a life of my own full of acceptance and understanding. Trans—this part of me I perceived as a defect all my life might just have been the reason I am alive today. I look into the mirror and look at the red lipstick, the eyeliner, the foundation—all the things my mother says make me look like a beautiful girl worthy of a marriage—all start to look fake, exaggerated, painted on a face that I always saw as that of a man. I do not see a girl; all I see is a drag queen looking back at me. Just like the ones on the pages of the So You Are a Girl book. Just like the ones in the same performance at our local gay bar in Canada. The ones with the big wigs filled with peacock feathers and hairspray, in their glittery and shimmery dresses from the 70’s bought secondhand from Value Village, as they would lip-sync to their favourite divas and twirl around my seat. The ones that would pull me by the tie, saying, “Honey, you are too handsome to not ask some girl for a dance,” before proceeding to the stage to finish up their grand finale in a quivering belt, as they would pull their wigs off, revealing their gender to everyone like it was an unwrapped gift for an unsurprised audience who would clap anyway. Yet, every Saturday night, I would sit on the bar stool and watch those drag queens so confidently perform gender. No matter what they wore or who they slept with, they would still be themselves underneath it all. They learned to reclaim femininity and masculinity and words like “fag” and “sissy,” and turn them into art and pride. They knew the art of transformation. They too knew how to survive. And they too knew how to survive. That was it. My skin, the make up, the clothing, this body—could not take away a gender I know
myself to be. A glimmer of hope strikes me, as I remove the last bit of eyeliner and stand up from the dressing table to go downstairs and put up the greatest show of my life. ~ Downstairs, Nadia and I enter the spacious living room where our parents sat. My eyes struggle to adjust to the bright lights. I notice that her parents had even turned on lights inside the glass showcases to display all the trophies and awards from their military and abroad achievements. Those were the only decorations filling their well-curated room. Without even a carpet, the room looked more like a museum. “Come, sit next to me,” my father pats the seat next to him, smiling as if to call me to tell the guests about my school work, rather than my gender identity. Despite my feelings of resentment towards him, I strike a fake smile that years of politeness in front of guests had taught me. I know that he thinks he is doing what is best for me. I take a seat next to him on the uncomfortable thin cushion of the wooden sofas, that could only be found in Bangladesh. “Is it true—what your father is saying?” my uncle asks in the stoic voice he learned from years in the military service. A voice my father was right about; I was afraid to disappoint. I look at Nadia, as she takes a seat across me and stirs the sugar into her cup of chai. She nudges me on. “I am just saying it for people to leave me alone, Uncle,” I reply. “I really just want to concentrate on my studies, but everyone here is pressuring me to get married. I can’t give all my time to a family while studying.” I talk fast, convincing myself that it is okay to lie back, if I was lied to in the first place to come back to Bangladesh.
I watch my uncle cross one leg over the other, and place his hand on his chin analyzing me up and down, as if practicing one of those psychological evaluation tests that I once heard were taught in the military. My shoulders tighten as I wait on his response. “See that is what I am saying. Aurora always just cared about her education,” my aunt interrupts, standing up to walk towards the dining table. She prepared extra dishes, and she has been waiting for the guests to compliment them. I watch my father’s smile widen as he swallows the lie his denial is starving for. “Well okay, then,” he pats me on the back ushering me to go get food. “Just make sure you get your Master’s right away, and then seriously think about marriage. Look, your aunt and uncle have been married for 30 years.” I nod, smiling back at Nadia. This is the last of that conversation for now. We get up and follow her mom to the table. ~ I sit by the window, watching the plane descend back to the skyscrapers of Toronto which are perpetually under construction. Filled with Bay Street suited workers who do not have the time to tell you the directions, the concrete streets of Toronto are a contrast to the square patchworks of greenery trodden by farmers and cows I saw landing in Bangladesh. The vision out the window turns blurry as my eyes start to water. I turn off the sad song playing in the background of my headphones that I fell asleep to. It makes me think of Nadia, my dad, and Bangladesh—all the people and places I have fought to leave behind. All the things I still care about and miss, although they do not have the space to keep me. I turn away from the man snoring next to me, so he does
not hear me cry. As the plane lands, I stand up. Waiting till the aisles clear up so I could get my luggage from the cabin overhead, I turn on my phone’s data. It lights up with over 20 messages from my friends in Canada that I did not get to check during my trip. “Where are you?” “Hey are you back yet?” “Are you okay?” “I am so worried. I need to see your face.” “The bar on Saturday?” I wipe my eyes with the sleeve of my shirt, hang the bag over my shoulder, and take a step into my second chance at a new life.
When visiting her friend in Moab, Utah, Jaime began to draw Marsh. “I was inspired by the surreal landscape and how prehistoric it was, almost,” says Jaime, who loves dystopian novels. Taking after her observations, the prehistoric themed drawing features a drowning skeleton that has flowers growing out of it, as well as a dinosaur. The artist, who used to live in New York City working as a child welfare social worker in the Bronx, doesn’t plan her drawings. Rather, Jaime adds things based on where she feels they should be on the page, and tries to fill the space as much as possible. “Sometimes I get burned out from all the small details, but I try to push through!” Jaime, who currently resides in Detroit with her fiancé Owen and is in a polyamorous relationship, says.
After studying film for a year in university, Sara Adams switched over to studying Classics. Adams, an Indian writer living in Toronto, decided that if she was going to spend her time analyzing something, it would have to be literature. It was during university that the 25-year-old started writing disturbance (with you). Originally, Adams’ story was a fanfiction. When she began to see the potential of her work, she changed the character’s names and personalities to better suit her new stand-alone fictional piece. disturbance (with you) has been in the works for years, but now it’s complete. Jaya is an aspiring photographer who recently quit her mundane part-time job to pursue her craft. With her friends Soo-Min and Victoria already successful in their fields, Jaya races to catch up. Now faced with a possible full-time, photography-related opportunity, Jaya must try to untangle herself from a yarn ball full of self-doubt and endless comparisons that she’s been making for herself since she graduated university. disturbance (with you) was Adams’ way of cathartically addressing the anxieties that came with life after university. “There was this Millennial existential question: What do you do after university? All of those stresses were in me when I started this,” says Adams. “But because it’s been a couple years since I started it, it’s changed. So, not only is this anxiety about the future, I’m now in the future.” Now that Adams can better relate to her character, she feels that her writing has grown more intense over the years. “You can feel it—it’s a struggle. That job hunt is a struggle. Seeing other people around you being successful is a struggle,” says Adams. For the rest of Sara Adams’ inspiring interview, check out our blog @ krosmagazine.com
disturbance (with you)
Clear skies backdrop the sunset and blind Jaya as she steps out onto the balcony in her daily ritual. She lights up her cigarette like always, reminds herself to empty the ashtray (but she always forgets), and breaths. Her neighbour is out on his balcony too, curled up on a chair. He’s got a book again. It’s too dark to make out the title, but last time she saw him it was Victoria’s book. The bitterness of the memory is still as salty as it was the day she noticed it, but still she watches him turn the page and wonders what it is that makes books so interesting anyway? “Are you okay?” Soo-Min asks, pushing the screen door closed as he joins Jaya outside, settling into one of the wicker chairs with his laptop. “You don’t look so good.” “I’m fine.” “If you say so.” Darkness settles over the city in a slow credits roll of colours as the streetlights kick in, making everything glow beneath them. It’s pretty, but it’s not enough, and neither is the second cigarette or the plate of leftover pizza Soo-Min shoves her way for dinner on the table between them. Jaya huffs. “Why do people read books?” she finally asks, cutting through the silence as Soo-Min taps away at his laptop. Soo-Min shrugs. “Ask someone who reads them.” “I thought you did.” “Magazines aren’t the same as books.” “Oh. Right. Never mind.” Soo-Min sighs. “What’s bothering you?” Jaya’s fist tightens over the railing. “Job hunt,” she answers shortly. Soo-Min nods, turns back to his laptop, and chews at the end of the pencil in his hand. “Still nothing?” She doesn’t bother with an answer.
~ Jaya’s laptop is full of photos, unorganized and outdated from days back in elementary school when she’d first picked up a point-andclick, one of those plastic things her mother had bought her from a drugstore before a trip to India to see family. She’d scanned them all into a flash-drive at the nearest do-it-yourself photo studio by her house. Most were blurry, some were accidental clicks when her index finger hovered over the lens. Some were attempts at selfies that only had half her face in the frame. But some of them… Jaya stares at brightly coloured silks from the marketplace that she’d spent a whole two film rolls on, folded neatly in stacked rows, or draped in pleats from tables. Her mother had gotten her the red one, edged with beads and sequins, a relic that lay folded in the back of her closet. She hadn’t met Soo-Min yet, the transfer who had dropped into her high school in the twelfth grade and sat behind her in math class. There are folders upon folders full of photos from drugstore cameras, before her mother finally bought Jaya a real one, without a single wisp of her best friend. (She wonders if she can still call Soo-Min that, sometimes.) With trembling hands, Jaya dumps a box full of old memory cards on her bed. She takes one at random—labelled 2009—and inserts it into her laptop. The pictures load up in a domino effect of colour and alphanumeric file names and she scrolls through, a scoff escaping her lips as she sees her old work, back when Soo-Min was the only one who was vain enough to say “sure” when Jaya had asked their group if anyone wanted to model for her portfolio. “Don’t you have enough work from your
classes?” Victoria had asked, and Jaya shook her head. “No way. I need more than just projects I’ve done for class, to show them I’m beyond what they’ve taught us.” Soo-Min had smiled at her that day, shy and unsure of himself, and asked if he would do. (He’d been perfect.) ~ Soo-Min is cold. Colder than he’s ever been, and a thousand miles away. Jaya steps into the kitchen, bare feet against cool tile that sends shivers up her spine as she zips up the hoodie she’s thrown over herself. Soo-Min’s next to the table, fiddling with the thermostat, frown on his lips. “Morning,” she greets him as she shuffles over to the kettle and switches it on. “Morning,” he echoes quietly, distractedly. “You got work today?” “Yeah. I was about to leave but…” he trails off, glancing toward her before his eyes shift back to the thermostat. “Anyway. Yeah. I’m gonna go. There’s leftovers in the fridge if you want them.” “Thanks. See you tonight?” “Yeah.” A minute later, he’s out the door, a bright green scarf trailing behind him. Jaya wishes she had her camera to catch its sway in the sliver of the open door, his broad shoulders turned perpendicular to the corridor walls. But he’s gone now, in a fleeting moment, door clicking shut behind him. They don’t talk anymore. They don’t do much of anything anymore. ~ At first, a new subject is difficult. It’s frustrating, because everything looks better in movement, everything looks better in the real world instead of on a two-dimensional sheet of glossy photo paper.
Jaya remembers trying to capture pigeons in front of her grandmother’s house in India, how they would never stay still for the flash of her camera, the click of the shutter. Every picture came out in a blur of flapping wings, and she didn’t have one successful shot. The day after she got her first DSLR was the day she tried again, working with birds at some tourist trap bird sanctuary that Victoria thought would be fun to kill time with. Playing with shutter settings and going through online tutorials, she finally had pictures of birds that came out crystal clear. But as colourful as the parrots and parakeets were, they looked so stagnant. Motion, Jaya realized, needed a bit of blur. Like an artist’s stroke of a brush, or the aftereffects of glow-sticks through the dark. Enough to hint at it, enough that the main focus was still clear. It was difficult, and tutorials online were no help in trying to explain the capture process, the settings needed. It was finicky, every picture needed different settings depending on a handful of criteria. The first time she succeeded, it was with Soo-Min. They were waiting for the bus in the cold, wind whipping his scarf in front of him. Back then, his hair was shorter, dark because he hadn’t bleached it yet. Brown eyes squinted against the chill of the wind, and he went to card his fingers through his hair. The click of Jaya’s shutter sounded and the moment was over, on her camera forever, blurred in all the right places with his profile clear as day. Most of her successes involved Soo-Min, Jaya thinks as she caresses her hand over the edge of her laptop screen, staring at the first in the dark of her room.
Jaya lays on the couch, staring up at the ceiling, at the fan that turns too slowly and creaks every third turn in the summer. She debates re-dying her hair just for something to do, something to busy her hands with that isn’t a cigarette, her laptop, or the stash of memory cards that remember every feeling of every moment she’s ever decided to capture. Because she couldn’t sleep (too hot, too cold, too preoccupied) and now it’s too early in the morning and there’s really nothing to do when it’s 7AM and all her brain can do is remember every excruciating detail. She has blue dye left, maybe some purple. It really doesn’t matter which colour she does out of the rainbow of leftovers she has. She remembers the first time she’d dyed her hair, a spur of the moment decision that Victoria had put into her head as a joke that Jaya had taken too seriously while they’d been out drinking. “It happened in a fic I read once,” Victoria had said, giggling over her cosmopolitan. “By fic, you mean your weird fanfiction,” Jaya corrected. “Stop judging me, oh my god, just… just listen, okay?” Victoria said stumbling over her words, waving her free hand frantically as if it would shoo away judgement waves. “She dyed her hair his fave colour. Like. As part of her confession. It was really cute, and like. Like… oh my god, Jaya, you should do it!” “Do what?” “Dye your hair!!” Jaya stared at her. “What? No!” she said when the words caught up to her. “No way, why don’t you?” “I can’t! Have you seen my hair when it’s not in braids? It’d be so cute on you though, and he’d notice it for sure. You’re so… so conservative usually—” “I lied to my parents about being here, and I’m the conservative one?”
But it stuck in Jaya’s head, Victoria’s stupid idea that on two shots sounded ridiculous. But then after another round and the long island iced tea they took to go in one of Victoria’s fancy water bottles to share on the subway ride home, it sounded perfectly logical. So that night, at two in the morning, Victoria had helped her bleach a strip of her long hair in her cramped dorm bathroom just to dye it Soo-Min’s favourite colour, green. He said it suited her, that green suited her, and gave her a set of pashminas in beautiful shades of the colour that Christmas even though she told him she didn’t celebrate it. Green, just like the one he’d wrapped around his neck yesterday right before leaving. Jaya still had them, in a hatbox at the back of her closet piled up with the stacks of photo boxes she kept. From then she’d kept bleaching it, dying it different colours, a band of colour that stretched from her temple into her ponytail whenever she wore her messy, untameable waves up. Stupid Victoria and her stupid good ideas that had her on her third soon-to-be successful published book since graduation. Jaya sits up, shakes her hair out from the tangled bun she’d had it in, and wonders if the drugstore a block away has any green. “You’re awake?” Jaya jumps at the sound of Soo-Min’s voice. “Y-yeah,” she says, turning to see him in casual clothes. “Don’t you have work today?” “Not till noon. Got a meeting in a couple hours though, was thinking of going to Starbucks in the meantime,” he explains. “Hey, actually, wanna come with me?” Jaya’s brow furrows. He sounds way too excited about a coffee run. “Um. Sure.” ~
“I thought you were trying to quit,” SooMin says, plucking an unlit cigarette from Jaya’s lips. “I guess that’s not going well.” He crushes it beneath his foot as they step out of their building and frowns when Jaya pulls out another one. “It’s not like I can waste what’s left in my last pack,” Jaya says, sticking it in her mouth and taking out her lighter. “Sure, sure,” Soo-Min says. Jaya just shrugs, flicking on the flame. “So, why Starbucks?” “They just came out with their holiday specials,” Soo-Min says. “Really craving their peppermint mocha.” “Oh. Okay,” Jaya says. It doesn’t make sense to her, just going out for coffee, but she’s glad for the change. He’s not distant today, right here in the moment with her, next to her, on her level. She can’t help but feel better, if only a little, as she pulls her camera out from her bag. She switches it on and takes another drag off her cigarette. “Mind paying?” she ventures. “Sure,” Soo-Min responds with a smile that’s too willing, too happy considering their recent financial issues, to not be completely suspicious. Jaya narrows her eyes at him, but Soo-Min’s back to fiddling with his phone, clicking it on and off and rechecking his weird cat collectible game. “Sure,” Jaya echoes quietly, eyes shifting to the screen on her DSLR. “Hey, what do you think of these? Anything you wanna use as a profile picture or something?” Soo-Min takes the camera from her, pocketing his phone, and starts going through the photos. “Hey, when did you take this one?” he finally says, showing Jaya the screen. Jaya shrugs. “I dunno, might’ve been a test shot,” she lies. It’s a photo from when they’d been at their friend’s birthday party at some club uptown, strobe lights blinding if they shone the wrong way for a second. Soo-Min’s
dyed blonde hair glowed blue and green in the lights, like he was underwater, as he stared up toward the crystal chandeliers that hung from the ceiling. “I don’t remember this at all…” Soo-Min says, but Jaya remembers. That night he’d gotten pretty drunk, and the lights only stayed that colour scheme for one song before they’d changed to a tacky pink and green combo. The birthday boy had dragged her away from the booth and tried to encourage her to dance, but she ended up sitting at the bar with her camera held tight in her hands like an anchor. Soo-Min was always more of a people-person than she’d ever been, and she missed Victoria’s cheeky smile and bad puns keeping company beside her. “You don’t have to,” she says. “The camera remembers for you.” He grins. “Is that why your grades were so terrible in high school?” “Shut up.” Finally they arrive at Starbucks, walk through the doors into warm heating and the smell of roasted coffee beans, and join the line. Soo-Min starts playing around with the shutter settings on the camera, taking pictures of the display of winter-themed tumblers and the desserts in the glass display. His pictures always turned out blurry no matter how much Jaya directed him, held his hands in her own to steady them. Even a tripod couldn’t cure it, and Jaya had stopped trying. Instead, she saved all of Soo-Min’s stupid blurry photos in a folder tucked away on her laptop, thinking they were artistic in their own inept way. Soo-Min orders for them, a grande peppermint mocha for himself and a caramel macchiato for Jaya, tapping his card on the machine as Jaya takes back her camera and goes through all the photos he had just taken. They’re all blurry, like always, but she
doesn’t delete a single one, not even his terrible attempt at a macro of the cranberry scones. “Wanna sit for a bit?” Soo-Min asks as he grabs their orders when they’re called out by the barista. “Sure.” He picks out a table near the back, close to the windows and the alley exit, with two comfy chairs nestled next to the corridor that leads toward the bathrooms. Jaya sets her messenger bag down and crashes back into the chair as Soo-Min sets their cups down on the table, stained with rings from spills and condensation. Jaya takes a picture as Soo-Min pulls his hands away, shutter closing in on long fingers with perfectly manicured nails. “Hm?” “Nothing,” Jaya says, saving that one for later too. “So… how’ve you been?” “We live together, Min,” Jaya deadpans. “You know how I’ve been.” Stressed, exhausted, trying desperately to put together a portfolio she liked so she could apply to jobs she didn’t want because all of them were for weddings or passports or department store studios or high school picture days. (Her portfolio is still a work in progress, always improving, constantly changing, never good enough despite all of Soo-Min’s affirmations that it’s all impressive.) Soo-Min grins widely at her though, and she wonders for a moment if he’s gone completely mad. “How would you be if I told you I’ve found someone willing to employ you to take photos for book covers?” Jaya stares at him. “What.” “Would you be interested in taking photos for book covers?” Gears turn in her head, going from zero to sixty in a screech of new thoughts. “Who?”
“Remember that publishing company that Victoria got signed on with?” Jaya’s face drops into a scowl. “Yeah, what about it?” She can tell Soo-Min’s trying not to laugh, but she’s seriously sick of hearing about Victoria’s book tour adventures on Instagram. “Well, she mentioned something about her publisher looking for a new agency or photographer to license cover images through. They’re looking for someone who mostly deals with portraits.” “You think they’d want me?” “Well… I don’t just think that, per se…” “Min, what did you do.” “I may have sent them your resume…” “Soo-Min.” He laughs nervously. “What I’m trying to say is you have an interview, and hey, maybe if you don’t fuck it up—” “I won’t.” Soo-Min smiles. “Then everything’s fine, isn’t it?” (It’s more than fine, but Jaya has never been good with words.) ~ Soo-Min gets back late that night. Jaya’s sitting cross-legged on the couch, wrapped in a hoodie with prints of photos spread out over the coffee table. “I’m home,” he says as he toes his shoes off. “Welcome back,” she mumbles, picking up two photos taken seconds apart, debating their differences, how the light comes from different directions and casts shadows slightly differently. “How was work?” “The usual.” Jaya grabs her pen from behind her ear and turns one of the photos over, marking an “X” in the corner. She can see Soo-Min hanging his coat up and folding his scarf over the hanger from the corner of her eye.
“You hungry? I made stirfry for dinner,” she says as Soo-Min heads to the kitchen and opens the fridge. “It’s on the stove. Just heat it up.” “Oh. Thanks.” Jaya hears him serve himself, the plastic spoon scraping the bottom of the pot, the clicking sound of the microwave opening and every beep of the buttons. The whirring as it starts up. She tries to focus on her photos, but she’s hyper-aware of his presence in the other room. She remembers when they used to cook together, back when they first moved in together. When they had movie nights and dinner nights and invited Victoria over and just chilled in the living room with board games and Cards Against Humanity. When they were all still finding their places in the world and Victoria was still writing her first book and Soo-Min was finishing up his internship. It’s not till Soo-Min is sitting on the couch next to her, turning on Netflix with the PS4, that she snaps out of her memories and busies herself with staring down another pair of photos. They’re the ones from the coffee shop, because of course they are, of course that’s what happened the last time she took out her camera (because these were all printed today, and the drugstore did have green hair dye, and it also had a photo service). “Hey, didn’t I take those?” Soo-Min asks, flicking lazily through the TV series with the PS4 controller. “When we went out, right?” “Probably.” “Camera remembers for you?” “Mhm.” “I just remember ‘cause they’re all blurry,” he says, amusement lacing his voice and choking hers. “Yours never are.” “Y-yeah.” “You dyed your hair?” Jaya nods, trying to engross herself in the
photos. She picks one up as if to scrutinize it more carefully, to ignore his eyes on her. “Looks nice.” “Thanks.” “So, you started working on your portfolio?” “Kinda.” Jaya shuffles the photos into a stack and frowns at it. “It’s hard to start when you don’t know where to begin.” “Well, I’m glad you’re trying,” he says, and Jaya feels her stomach tie itself into knots. ~ Jaya walks into the kitchen. It’s deja vu, with Soo-Min fiddling with the thermostat, and she sidles up to him clad in three layers and the warmest socks she owns. “What’s up?” she asks, and her voice cracks into a yawn. “Is something wrong?” Soo-Min barely glances at her. His blonde hair falls over his eyes and Jaya can barely make out the furrow of his brow. “I think,” he starts, before sighing and giving up on the dial, letting his hand fall back to his side. He won’t look at her, staring at the box on the wall. “I think our heater is broken. I’ll look up what it costs to fix it. I can dig into my savings. It’s not a big deal, but if we don’t do something about it before the cold front sets in then we might have issues—” Jaya barely has time to process the information because he’s talking a mile a minute and won’t stop, won’t pause long enough to let her get a word in. “Min,” she tries. He doesn’t even hear her. “But, overall we should be fine. I think there’s a storm this weekend and if we can’t fix it by then—” Louder, then. “Soo-Min.” He blinks, like he’s realized her existence only inches away from him, and tenses up. “I can deal with it, so don’t worry.” “You can’t just say that and deal with everything by yourself,” Jaya says, voice growing louder still. “You can’t just—”
“Then what can you do? Do you have the money? Can you really help?” Soo-Min asks, and it’s not condescending, not even angry. She wishes he would scream. “I can deal with it, just like I’m dealing with everything else. I told you I would, and I am. Just… finish your portfolio. Impress them at your interview. Get the job. Then we can talk about what you can do.” ~ Her room is freezing, the heat isn’t working, and it’s another expense to fix it all that SooMin takes on by himself. Jaya scans over her bank account information, with a whole two dollars and seventy-two cents left in her chequings account. She doesn’t know whether to regret ditching her job or not, but it felt right. It was a good idea. They were barely giving her enough hours to cover rent and her boss was a creep. It was Soo-Min who made her regret her decision. It was him who always managed to push logic instead of luck. It’s only for a few months, he’d told her. He could cover their rent and their groceries. It’s a few months, Jaya tells herself now. Plus anything and everything that could possibly go wrong in the span of time it takes for her to get a better job. She almost wishes she’d picked something easier, just gotten some boring office job with a ladder to steadily climb like Soo-Min had. A computer science major who’d gotten a bank job that pays over twenty an hour on full-time. He could afford her stupid mistakes, so her parents would never find out that she ever made them. Jaya lies down, wrapping herself in her quilt and staring at the ceiling, studying the odd shadows cast around her room from the light of her laptop. She wonders if the low light would make pictures come out gritty, but she’s
too lazy to reach over to get her point-andclick, too lazy to walk across the room for her DSLR. Too lazy, too anxious, too exhausted. The bright red LED of the alarm clock she always sleeps through tells her that it’s two thirty-four in the morning. She wonders if Soo-Min is asleep, if she’d wake him up by going out for a smoke. If she even has any cigarettes left. She hasn’t had a single one in days and it’s killing her. She gets up, picks a hoodie up from the pile of laundry on the floor, and checks her desk drawers, fingers feeling around for anything that vaguely feels like a cigarette pack. Jaya remembers what Soo-Min had said the day after their fight, when she told him that she couldn’t afford to pay anything and let him see the pitiful amount on her pay stub. It was stupid, he didn’t understand, but it was true and she hated it all the same. “If you can afford to smoke, then you can afford to pay rent.” She’d kept her stupid promise, she hadn’t bought a single pack, carefully rationing the ones she had left. Jaya slams the drawer shut and pulls the next one open, searching desperately through chewed pencils, black erasers, and copic markers, but there’s nothing. She’s ready to dump the contents of the next drawer on the floor when her cell phone starts buzzing loudly on her bed. She crosses her room in two long strides, snatches her phone up, and swipes to answer it. “What do you want.” “Hey Jaya! It’s Victoria—” “It’s past two in the morning, why are you calling?” “Ah, I just figured you’d be awake,” Victoria says, apologetic to the last. “You were always a night owl and I haven’t had the chance to call you since I started this book tour! You know,
timezones and stuff—” “I’m well aware of your book tour,” Jaya mutters. She vaguely remembers college days spent together talking about their future, how Victoria would be on a bestsellers list and Jaya would have a famous photo gallery in New York. And then, how only one of them got what they wanted. Victoria just giggles. “Well, I miss you Jaya. Sorry for calling so late…” Jaya can picture the way she used to twist her box braids tightly around her fingers whenever she was nervous. “It’s fine, I’m just… it doesn’t matter. What’s up?” “Well, did Soo-Min tell you about the licensing contract that’s up for grabs with my publishing company?” “Yeah.” “Are you gonna try for it?” “... Yeah.” “That’s great!” “If you say so.” “You know, if your photography has improved since college, there’s no way you won’t get picked,” Victoria says excitedly. “I recommended you for the selection process, you know.” “You did?” “Yeah! You were always so talented with a camera and submitting them as stock photos is such a waste.” Jaya’s grip on her phone tightens. Victoria was right, of course, because uploading generic stock photos brought in the equivalent of a teenager’s allowance on a good week, but it was better than doing nothing, sitting on how many years worth of photos that could be used for something, anything. “Anyway, if you want any info on the job and what my boss expects, don’t be afraid to call or text me! You deserve this job, Jaya.” “... Thanks. Uhm. I’m about to go to bed, so.”
“Yeah! Yeah, of course,” Victoria says too loudly. “Please, sleep. I just wanted to let you know that I’m here for you if you need anything. Really.” “It’s… appreciated. Good night, Victoria.” “Night, Jaya!” She hangs up and sinks to her knees, phone clattering to the floor. (She doesn’t deserve either of them.) ~ Jaya finds herself on the balcony with or without something to busy her hands with, chilly November air prickling at her skin as she pulls her hoodie over her and leans over the railing. There’s barely a difference between the temperature inside and outside now, but it’s becoming claustrophobic inside and at least out here she can breath. It’s three now, late into the night, but her bespectacled neighbour is still out on his own balcony, another thick book in his hands. She wonders if it’s compelling, or if he’s just turning the pages for something to do. He’s wrapped in a knit sweater and a blanket, and Jaya wonders if he can even feel the cold. “No smoke today?” he asks suddenly, voice ringing clear in the night as his eyes draw up from the page, peer through the bars of the railing of his own balcony. “Ran out,” she responds, like they’ve talked a million times. He peers up at her over his glasses with bright green eyes. “Want one?” “Desperately.” He unfolds himself from his chair and digs through the backpack at his feet. “You’re in luck,” he says, withdrawing a cigarette. “Here, take it.” “Uhm. Thanks.” She reaches across the railing and takes it, rolling it between her fingers. “Any chance you have a light too?” “Of course.” He takes a lighter from his
pocket and reaches over again. “So, what’s your name, neighbour?” “Jaya. You?” “Wyatt.” Jaya wants to laugh. “I expected something hipster, but I definitely didn’t expect that.” He shrugs and sits backs down. “So what has you staring into the distance this late at night?” “Lots of stuff.” She blows smoke, watches as it dissipates into the chill. “Is your book so interesting that you forgot to sleep?” “You could say that.” They drift into a comfortable silence, and Jaya tries to focus on the planes flying by in the night sky, the muted sounds of the nearby airport. Her nerves are already calming down, a combination of cold air on her face and smoke in her lungs. But everything still seems so far away. ~ A pretty person doesn’t make a good photo. It was something that had been drummed into Jaya through college, a habit she needed desperately to ditch, but couldn’t (because a muse was a muse, even if it was a crutch). She throws clean piles of laundry off her bed and onto the floor, grabs her laptop from under her pillow, and opens it. It’s a blinding rectangle of light in her dark room, and she has to turn down the brightness setting and blink to get the spots out of her eyes. The box of memory cards lays toppled on the bed, against the wall, and she doesn’t doubt that some fell through the cracks to the floor. but she pulls another at random—this time labelled 2011—and sticks it into her laptop, waits for it to load as she impatiently taps her fingers against the keyboard. She needs a smoke. (She promised she wouldn’t today, for one day, because Soo-Min promised to pay for dinner and just because she has an interview,
doesn’t mean she has a job.) She crosses her legs, uncrosses them, folds them beneath her, stretches them out. Her laptop is old and slow and senile and she can’t sit still, but she needs to be patient and maybe chew on some gum. Gum. Good idea. She leans over the side of her bed, hands searching out for her bag on the floor. “Hey Jaya, want pizza again tonight?” SooMin’s voice drifts through her bedroom door. “Whatever you want,” Jaya calls, finally finding her pack of gum and tearing a stick out. She drags herself upright again and stares some more at her laptop, watching the rainbow cursor spin as her laptop continues to work itself awake. Finally the folder opens, rows and rows of landscapes and sunsets and stars and the times she attempted star trails and macros of icicles at the lake that never came out right because she didn’t have the right kind of lens. The sky that night reminded her of watercolours and she had to take it, dark silhouettes of glass apartment buildings in the foreground as the sun appeared, shining through the gaps between the buildings, a piercing multicoloured light. They were pretty, the colours came out well, but… They look like high quality images on a PC’s default list of wallpapers. Something she’d find on a Windows 10 computer. Something she’d find on iStockPhoto, that someone would buy to use on their blog articles about the ten best spas in the city, or the healing benefits of vitamin D. “This is ridiculous,” she mutters to herself as she closes each preview window, each tap on her trackpad an impatient click. Her phone starts buzzing on her desk and she goes to answer it.
“Hey Jaya!” “It’s late again, Victoria.” “Yeah, sorry,” she apologizes. “It’s just that Soo-Min mentioned you were having trouble putting together your portfolio? Did you need some direction?” Jaya stares at the dark slits between her floorboards and scowls. “I’m not—” “Jaya,” Victoria starts carefully, “he said you wouldn’t talk about it.” “Because it’s none of his goddamn business,” she snaps. “Fucking hell, he doesn’t even talk to me anymore, but of course. Of fucking course, he’d talk about me.” “Jaya, it’s not like that and you know it.” “How do you know? You don’t see him every goddamn day.” Victoria sighs. “Your portfolio is important. We all want to see you succeed, and completing it is half your battle right now. He’s just worried about you.” “No he’s not,” Jaya mutters, feeling her hands clench into fists. “I just—you know what, never mind. Forget about Min. I’m calling because I care, not because he told me to,” Victoria says. “Just, I don’t know. I was going to tell you to create it like you’re weaving a story with photos. Have a start and an end. Have events. I think having a direction like that will help? Don’t just throw your best pictures in with no stream of thought.” Jaya breathes, trying to calm down. “I don’t have a story to tell,” she mutters. “Yes you do.” Jaya can imagine Victoria’s smile, always one step ahead of her and knowing it. “What are half your photos about?” “I don’t know.” The silence that follows reminds Jaya of all the disbelieving looks and resigned sighs Victoria used to aim her way. “Should I spell it out, or do you want to figure it out?”
“I don’t know,” Jaya says. “Tell me? Does it even matter when none of these photos are good enough?” Victoria’s silent, for once without words. Then finally, in a quiet voice that Jaya has to strain to hear, “What happened to you two?” Jaya grits her teeth together. “Why don’t you ask him?” “I want to hear it from you.” “Nothing, okay? Nothing happened. Nothing ever happens. Nothing except me fucking up everything and him taking responsibility because I don’t know and I haven’t had a cigarette in fucking days and quitting coldturkey is fucking balls, and Min is—” Jaya cuts herself off. She stares at the wall, the one she once plastered with hipster polaroids and strings of LED lights, and grimaces. “Jaya?” “If he really loves me, then why won’t he say it?” She remembers that night, when she’d dragged Soo-Min out to the lake, wrapped up in thick winter coats and gloves that made it hard to hold her camera. They’d camped out in his mom’s car as Jaya’s camera worked on a timer to capture star trails for an entire hour as they listened to the radio and talked about anything and everything as she watched his smile, wishing she’d brought along her old point-and-click too. They’d almost kissed that night, under the stars in the freezing cold, leaning over the cupholders as they wasted the data on their phones watching vines. But they didn’t, staring into each other’s starry eyes. She felt his breath on her lips as the radio went quiet and her heart stopped beating, but nothing happened. She knows how Asian culture works. How it’s always worked. How it’s all in the actions, never the words. How she rarely ever even heard her parents say those words, why it never became part of her vocabulary, why
she could never get past the threshold and just say it. She knows, and yet. “It’s not like you’ve been able to say it either,” Victoria reasons, and Jaya hates herself even more. ~ The dewy morning chill outside settles on Jaya’s skin in goosebumps under her thick hoodie as she sits down on the comfy chair on the balcony. It’s as cold inside as it is outside, and fresh air seems like a good idea. There’s a slew of new photos on her camera and she takes it out of it’s bag and turns it on, watching the screen light up and the viewfinder catch the slats of the railing, starkly lit under the afternoon sun into bars of jet black and glinting white. She thinks back onto Victoria’s words. “A story, huh,” she mumbles, loading up the first photo and running a hand through her mess of wavy hair. Her fingers catch on the strands she dyed green. They look acidic in the sun and she wonders what they’d look like on camera. One by one she slides through the photos, marking some for later, deleting some altogether. The chill never leaves, but she stops rubbing at her arms so often, focused on her task no matter how much she doesn’t want to do it. “Hey neighbour.” Jaya jerks up from her camera and sees Wyatt leaning over his balcony. “Hey,” she says, like he didn’t just sneak up on her. She wonders how long he’s been standing there, how long she’s been sitting there. “No book today?” “Was about to go buy a new one. The latest in this series just came out and—” “A Lie in the Light, right?” His brow shoots up. “How’d you know?” “Saw you reading the last book. My best friend wrote it.” It feels weird saying it out loud
to a complete stranger who probably wouldn’t believe her. Momentarily, she debates just handing him her signed ARC copy, the one that came in the mail months ago, the one that Victoria was so excited for her to see in print (because the hype of her own published novel in her hands didn’t die off with just the first book). “That’s so cool, how’s it feel to know a famous author?” Like she should have tried harder, done more, but she’s not sure what she could have done better. “Oh, I dunno,” Jaya shrugs. “It’s strange, that’s for sure.” ~ Jaya is on the couch again, freezing, but it’s better than being outside this time when the wind chill alone has the temperature in the double negatives. December closes in, and with it the cold front Soo-Min was so worried about. Soo-Min is at work, having left a couple of hours ago. A pile of photos sits on the coffee table and Jaya’s eyes shift over to look at it momentarily before promptly going back up to the still ceiling fan. “A story,” she murmurs to herself. “What story?” She thinks about all of her photos. The rolls of film from India, the birds from the sanctuary, the random photos from every day she ever brought her camera out (which used to be every day, but has been increasingly less the more she stares down her empty portfolio), and of Soo-Min. There’s a folder just for Victoria in there too, of every single hairstyle she’s worn since high school. A halo of fairy lights circles her head in one of them, casting her in a glow that accentuates the texture of her box braids. Another has her against a brick wall, her lips wide in a smile that showed all her teeth, hair
in a curly afro that she’d spent most of the morning on styling. It’s the one that’s in her books, along with a bio that makes her life sounds idyllic, because she didn’t trust anyone else to take the most important photo of her career. “Just tell me where to stand,” Victoria would say when they explored the city that day, trying to find fascinating but empty nooks and crannies of the world that inspired Jaya to take out her camera. It reminded Jaya of college, when they’d laugh and talk about classes, make study dates where they ended up watching Netflix instead, and take trips to Starbucks just to be those artsy girls who ordered venti lattes and worked on their laptops. Sometimes they brought along a bag of props and lighting in case Jaya got a photo bug, but most of the time they worked with whatever was around and Jaya would throw the photos into Photoshop and work some post-editing magic to bring them to life with adjusted lighting and vignettes. But when did photography become such a crippling anxiety? When did Victoria become her enemy? Jaya lets out a breath and glances at the blank screen of her phone. Soo-Min’s still at work for a couple hours yet, and according to the last of Victoria’s texts, she’ll be on a flight back to the city right about now. Jaya misses her. Misses their adventures and how fun it was to do photography back in college. She stares at the photos on the coffee table and makes her decision. Going through boxes of memories, looking for the pictures that made Jaya smile, was decidedly stupid. But by the end of the day, the pile on the coffee table is filled with pictures she remembers being proud of. Without the filter of perfection weighing them down,
there’s almost too many. She shuffles them all into a pile and slides them into an envelope. It’s done. Jaya checks the time before packing the envelope into her bag and grabbing her jacket. If she leaves now, she’ll make it in time to see Victoria back at the airport. Soo-Min walks through the door as she’s on her way out. “Later,” she says, pushing out the door and leaving the apartment for the first time since he took her out to Starbucks. “Where are you going?” “Airport. Vi’s back.” “Wait, I’ll come with you. I’ll drive.” The car ride is silent. Soo-Min doesn’t turn on the radio, and Jaya doesn’t feel like taking the reins on that. Her thoughts are still racing over the photos in her bag. It’ll be fine, right? In the Arrivals area, they find a table at a coffee shop and sit down, order Victoria’s favourite sandwich for the ride back, and tea for themselves. Jaya shoots Victoria a text to let her know to meet them there. “No camera today?” Soo-Min asks finally. “It’d crush the photos,” Jaya says, pulling her messenger into her lap and extracting the envelope. “My portfolio. Bet you’re dying to see it.” His brow shoots up. “Your portfolio?” “Yeah. It’s done, I finished it just before you got in.” She slides it across the table. “Take a look and tell me what you think.” Not that it matters. Jaya feels a surge of confidence within herself. If she had fun taking them, then that’s all she can ask for.
“I’m going to need him to bulk up. He’s so thin and frail.” Recounting the words of her partner’s doctor after a major surgery, Jaime says that Jeff was in the hospital for almost a week before he came home. “This really stuck with me. For months before the surgery he had been so sick and in agonizing pain, and he hadn’t been able to eat much,” Jaime says. “I stayed with him a lot of the time at the hospital. One night, I even slept on a chair next to his bed.” When he finally came home, Jaime started drawing Frail. “I wanted to convey some of his pain, uncertainty, and bravery. He’s the strongest person I know,” Jaime says. For the rest of Isabella Jaime’s inspiring interview, check out our blog @ krosmagazine.com
she ba karim
The author of two YA novels featuring South Asian/Muslim American teenage narrators, with another releasing this year, Sheba Karim focuses her work on themes of identity, Islam, parental conflict, and the trials and tribulations of coming of age. Currently living in Nashville, Tennessee, Karim has also lived in Philadelphia, New York City, and New Delhi, where she has been exposed to “varying types and manifestations of Islamophobia.” By writing about the South Asian/Muslim American experience, Karim actively disassembles stereotypes about race and Islam, creating a narrative filled with representation that young adult readers can enjoy. The journey taken when writing and reading fiction is not without its epiphanies. Karim realized the power of language when she received support from her parents after sharing a short story. “It seems silly—of course they would [support me], but for me it was very powerful,” says Karim. “I had transplanted words and images from my mind and put them on the page, and someone else read these words and both understood and enjoyed them.” On a more serious scale, her relationship with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre—one of her favorite books growing up—shifted when she read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys in high school. “Ms. Rhys’s book helped me see the power of perspective in fiction; that every character has a backstory. That the canon of Western literature has always privileged certain voices over others,” says Karim, who is Pakistani-American. “It seems obvious
now, but as a child of immigrants who grew up primarily reading books about white people living in almost exclusively white worlds, this blew my mind. I realized that, though I was not white, I had been reading as if I were. I had been identifying with Jane when in fact I had more in common with Bertha, both of us ‘savages’ searching for a place to call home.” When she began practicing family law after graduating from the New York University School of Law, Karim also started writing seriously. A few years later, she enrolled in an MFA program with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has since been a full-time writer. Karim’s first book Skunk Girl drastically altered her writing process. After selling her manuscript to Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers, she says that with the input from her editor she “deleted and completely rewrote the second half” of her book. “It was a much better book for it, and it made me realize the importance of a good editor or a good reader who can help you determine when to persist and when to let go,” says Karim. “Deleting an entire half of a novel also helped me lose the fear of ‘killing your darlings.’” By her second book That Thing We Call a Heart, Karim was clearly without fear. She removed the original best friend of the protagonist. “She was too similar to the narrator,” explains Karim. “I realized one of the narrator’s other friends, who until then played a minor role in the book, was far more interesting and warranted much more of the spotlight.” For the rest of Sheba Karim’s inspiring interview, check out our blog @ krosmagazine.com
The inaugural issue of KROS Magazine, showcasing works of fiction and art by creative South and Southeast Asians.