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Zhu, Rachel, Knuckles


Rachel Zhu
Age: 16, Grade: 11

School Name: Horace Mann School, Bronx, NY
Educator: Sarah McIntyre

Category: Personal Essay & Memoir


For my grandmother, Strong Woman One

In the new apartment in New York, my grandmother and I slept in adjacent rooms. We
created a code that bridged what little space and drywall divided us—two knocks meant hello,
three knocks meant I wanted a story. I felt restless every night, my taps against the paint an
unmistakable summon. She never complained; she only came around the hallway silently,
delicately, talked slumber into my seven-year-old body of boundless vigor folktale by folktale.
She always wore a long dress, seaside motif stitched into the little pocket on the front, straight
neckline that rearranged into a skirt of angular folds when she settled on the corner of the

When she was senseless on the hospital bed, close to death, I was eight, alone in Hong
Kong watching Mr. Bean and Pink Panther on the iPad 2 in the Hsu’s sun-steeped living room. I
drew dogs in hats and evening dresses for Ingrid Hsu, fought to watch Alex play video games on
his Dell laptop, and overwhelmed their new, shy samoyed. I never thought about home. How
could I think about home when we were always going to the public pool, going to the glass
library, going through the streets and up those enormous flights of stairs? I never saw her during
all that time. When I FaceTimed, my parents only disclosed that she remained bedridden. Then I
flew back and the hospital bed was gone from the room, the funeral over, the picture chosen for
the headstone. I remembered all the times my parents had told me to stop disturbing her sleep. I
felt the guilt in tidal waves. Some days I knew that it was unreasonable, that it wasn’t my fault,
yet others I submerged myself in regret anyways.

After my grandma’s death, we painted the walls yellow. In a way it was a method of
instilling false joy into what had become a canyon of gravity—yet the yellow expired, turned
insincere. Some things remained: the old queen-sized bed, the old fabric-scrap drawer and red tin
sewing box and clear bag of buttons. At times I thought I sensed the endless, inaudible echo of
knuckles against the wall. Other things changed; the closet we filled with two vacuums, old
paper bags, gift wrap, blankets that smelled like pencil shavings. We slid books unwanted in our
own personal libraries onto the old shelves, put the Brompton bike in the corner, moved the
painting easel in next to the table. I pushed the last school year’s papers into the hollow between
the boxes. I wanted the Red Anemones by A. Melion print in the big ribbed frame that sat on the
sill, so I ripped out the stapled back. Three out of six bulbs went out in the row of lights above
the pillows, the dwarf citrus tree’s thorns picked holes in the curtains, and my dad hung up a
glossy print of a photo taken in Ghent, the buildings reflected in the water at night, because there
was nowhere else in the apartment for it to go. In the corner cradled by the neverending fence of
Nat Geo magazines, my briefly relished stamp collection changed colors. Planet Earth. The CRB
Commodity Yearbook 2015. Dream of the Red Chamber. The clock still ticked but everything
was wrong. We never opened the window.

We never opened the window, which meant I was safe—never again would I be like the
time my parents left for the weekend and I slept with my grandmother on the queen in the room
and feared the entire night that a robber would climb in the window from the night’s cool.

Sometimes we hosted guests in the room and the day before their arrival I slipped past the
door to revel in the bed made. Certain Augusts I sought out the button bag, hunting safety pins
with which to fasten the strap of my shirt to my bra. Every couple years I threw a sleepover,
hauled the twin mattresses from my bed and the trundle down the hallway and slid them in next
to the queen. During those nights, we concerned ourselves only with the amount of outlets—for
phone chargers—and the next card in the next hand. I called it the guest room.

The morning after they all left, I liked to sit between all the blankets and pillows strewn
everywhere. Then, thinking about it—what relief that was! No longer the guest room, but the old
room, grandma’s room, the room of everything, the close, material record of past eras. To know I
could still cry eight years later and smother fabric over my head like it was tangible guilt and I
could bury my arms and legs and everything in it. She did tai chi on the balcony on thin, pale
mornings, arms etching slow circles against the city air amid the mess of roses and tomatoes and
lotuses and anemones spreading in the pots. One night in closing autumn I left my bed, still
unconscious, called to her from the intersection of the hallways and then, to her great alarm,
mounted the steps to the terrace doors. She held me back from the November ice. Another night I
woke up to see her bent over against the bathroom light’s brilliance, my mother saying things
softly. I felt the impending grief but didn’t know where it would land.

There’s a picture somewhere in the digital hinterland of my grandmother carrying me as a
baby. She’s got that timeless striped flannel and photograph-grin, and I’m a spill of beige pug
and dark hair nestled in her elbow. The backdrop of the photo is the egg-yolk interior of the old
Princeton house, the glass back door overexposed. Standing by that door the month before we
left for New York, she and I saw the daughter of the new owner pluck a red bloom from the
garden when it wasn’t hers yet, and then we were angry together. There, together, we christened
the little driveway “the elephant driveway”, for the way it thinned from a great strip of gray to
narrow asphalt path—a mammoth’s trunk. A mortal’s ending.

Upon returning from Hong Kong, I found the apartment quieter, the lights colder, the
picture chosen for the headstone. The photo is from Spain—she’s two thin eyes and boy-cut
white hair leaning into the Barcelonian background. Black jacket, red turtleneck. When we visit
to plant windflowers or cut the leaf celery and trim the bushes, I’m the last to kiss the picture
before we leave; hands against stone, mouth against dried rainwater and grass dust and

Having less time for drives to Westchester now, the room serves as an adequate
memorial. There’s no picture, but it works to kiss the window or the button bag or the pile of
blankets in the box. It works to lean back into the lap of the mattress and close off the mind to
everything but the ticks, miniscule fractions of seconds longer than they should be. The Bose
Hi-Fi System reads 11:11—make a wish—it works to kiss the wall, feel sound against my mouth
still living under the paint. Sometimes I still wonder if she’d have lived longer if I hadn’t
knocked so much, demanded so many hours of her sleep to fill the empty spaces of my boredom.
Oh, but this is an explanation of a phenomenon—because cancer is a phenomenon—with the
result in mind. Can three taps on a wall knock disease into a body? But can three taps be undone,
ever—not really, not even if you plant so many ugly Chinese impatiens around a gravestone they
spread into the neighbor’s plot or paint portraits of her or write stories about her or become
everything she wanted you to be. The truth is that there isn’t a way to illustrate or plant or
succeed or un-knock someone back into life.

The other month we cleared out a box. Old clothes—a long denim with fish and seashell
patterns sewn into the middle pocket. Pulling it over my head, I thought I saw her walking
through the hallway, short hair, long dress, long shirt, long pants, loose cloth, loose skin. I saw
her the same way I saw her in the dream I had the single night I slept-walked—she followed me
out into the living room and watched as I climbed up the stair and placed my hand on the handle
of the terrace door and asked if I could go outside, if I could go outside in the solace of
November in the perfect middle of the night, if I could open the door and step out into the air and
into all the wilderness and red anemones.

One summer night my parents fought over the necessity of air conditioning, and my
mother took refuge in the room so she could blast cold air in peace. Still awake in my bed, I
knocked on the wall between us for nothing’s sake. When she knocked back, I cried.