That summer, I went home for the first time in four years. There were fewer goldfish in the living-room tank, but they were plumper, sated on unsaid words. They looked on with saucer eyes at my dad, who cradled his head in his hands, slumped in an almost-prayer. It was hot, as it always is in July, and I didn’t have much else to say, so that’s what we talked about over breakfast the first morning. Fried crullers my grandfather had purchased a street corner over and my rudimentary vocabulary. Vacuous remarks about the weather.


At night, I watched my grandmother brush her teeth while looking out the window. Her city was intimate after dark, the little lives contained in the apartment complex’s uniform windows, laundry hung to dry swaying outside. Nothing in the apartment had really changed since the last time I’d been back. The taxidermied peacock above the mantle stared at the wall as we said nothing. You sent a text asking about my flight, pointedly not acknowledging the previous messages. I turned off my phone without responding.


Things were still tense with my father the next day, some invisible burden stiffening the line of his shoulders. I passed by my grandfather’s office and heard him arguing with my dad inside, their voices rising, but they spoke too quickly for me to parse out their words. My mother tried to mediate but gave up, slinking back to their room to sleep.


There wasn’t much else to do in the July heat. It slowed everything to a languid pace: the thrum of the air conditioning unit, the elderly couples taking their afternoon walks past hawkers selling green onions on the side of the street. The fish strained against the walls of the tank. I imagined them swelling until the glass burst.


On the fourth day we came back from eating lunch to find my grandfather gone, disappeared for Beijing’s hospitals without a word. My dad didn’t seem surprised, but I felt suddenly disoriented. How had he gotten there? I couldn’t imagine him taking the train, all alone. When had he left? What was wrong? My dad and I sat in the living room, facing away from each other. Did you know? I asked him silently.


A week later we still could not get hold of him. Dad said he’d been meaning to buy him an iPhone, so he could track his location. It was too late now, of course, but I thought it was sort of heartbreaking to think about being back at school and watching my grandfather’s dot roam around an ocean away. There are a lot of things I want to say to my grandparents but can’t, I told you one time. You’d looked at me, confused. You could just ask your parents to help translate. It’s not that easy, I’d said.


I couldn’t speak Chinese well, and I wasn’t sure how I’d begin even if I did. It felt like a loss still, though, sitting silently next to my grandmother as sports commentators blared what I guessed to be alternately praise and outrage from the TV. Even the occasional English ads started to sound unintelligible: I focused too much on the syllables, until they became gibberish, entirely divorced from their meaning.


We watched as the runners zipped around the track and I thought about how I used to spend hours walking around campus when you didn’t pick up the phone. I wish you cared more, I would have said then. The gap between what I wanted to express and what I found myself able to verbalize was often a chasm. I care so much, I wanted to say now.


My voice was raspy from disuse. I wondered if I’d remember how to talk when I got back to the States, or if this was the start of some linguistic erosion. First you lose the second language, then the first. When I was a baby my parents taught me sign language, to fill in the gaps of what I couldn’t yet say. A thumbs up with a motion peeling down means banana. That’s all I remember now.


By the eighth day, words had begun to fail me. I thought in silent images. It was hot. We ate greedily, excessively, grilled meat on the bone, whole fish smiling up from the table, savory noodles prepared in cold sesame sauce with fresh cucumber. I sat around for hours after lunch feeling uncomfortably full.


I kept my phone off most of the time. Once in a while, I would power it on and watch the notifications of your texts populate on the screen until they crowded out everything else. I was trying to be a better person, one with stronger convictions. You lacked resolve in everything you did, except for when you were trying to compensate for a mistake you knew you’d made. None of the messages you’d sent said anything of substance. The nice thing to do would have been to reply but I was tired of talking about nothing and other people.


My father spent his afternoons pacing. He started in the kitchen, wearing circles into the tired floor. He refused to lie down, or to meet my eyes when I asked if he was worried about my grandfather. It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened, but it was the first time I’d known about it in real-time rather than months later. This had been a source of conflict the summer prior, about the failing health of my favorite great-uncle I hadn’t seen since I was very young. You can’t just keep things like this from us, I’d shouted. This is the way things are done, he’d told me, and stormed out of the room. We hadn’t talked about it since.


Things were coming to a head. It was the heat, pressure building from within. The silence was unsustainable; at some point, it would have to break. There were only so many ways we could arrange ourselves in the apartment: my grandmother puttering around the kitchen, my parents circling each other, my brother oblivious to the world, the tangible absence of my grandfather from the leather chair in his office.


Left to his own devices, my little brother ate nothing but fruit and pastry. I gorged myself, then shut myself in my room for hours, trying to string together Mandarin from online translation videos. The syllables were clumsy in my mouth, intonations sliding into one another, coming out warped. That was the trouble with the language I’d had since childhood. One wrong tone, and meaning was distorted, or lost entirely.


The days blurred past, made hazy by the heat, which became worse, oppressive, as the month went on. I drafted a message: we should talk. It sat in the entry field of my texts and I imagined the three dots blinking on your end, even though you likely weren’t looking. Something needed to change, I told myself, but I couldn’t bring myself to send it. I left my room and saw my grandmother sitting alone, then went back in and pulled up the pronunciation guides.


I spent afternoons typing in sentences to the translation software, hitting play and letting the pleasantly robotic female voice read back to me in Chinese. When I got bored, I went for a walk around the apartment complex, watched the children chase each other, chattering excitedly, then came back to my room. My searches went like this:


It’s good to be back

Rice porridge

I missed you when I was in school

Do you remember when I was a kid

Very full

Ending things with someone

I’m not in love with you

Is grandpa okay


How long will grandpa be away

Will you tell me about my dad when he was young


On my last day there, I woke up to a gray sky, rain finally breaking the heat wave. It was early in the morning. The apartment was silent. I padded to the living room and found my grandmother staring out of the window, the city skyline barely visible behind fog.


She turned to look at me. I felt the words I’d practiced catch in my throat and went to sit next to her. The sunrise was diluted by the fog, only a faint tint of orange visible, but we watched the sky lighten together. When the last vestiges of color had faded, I cleared my throat. I’ll call, I said, staring at my hands. When I get back to the States. She patted my leg, a peaceful smile on her face, then got up and walked to the kitchen. I heard the crackle of the stove turning on.


In the afternoon, I ordered a car service to the airport. The rain had started again, furious  against the wet concrete. My dad walked with me to the gate of the apartment complex, clutching an umbrella. We stood next to each other facing the street.


Unexpectedly, my eyes burned. Will grandpa be okay? I said, staring straight ahead. I felt, more than heard, his exhale, and risked a glance sideways. He took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes with the heel of his palms, and I felt stricken at how suddenly fragile he looked, some old childhood terror rising up. He’s fine, he said, shoulders slumping. Don’t worry. Go back and study hard.


The car skidded to a stop in front of us, splashing water, and the driver hopped out and gestured at me. Okay, I said. My dad pulled me into a hug. Okay, he said. Safe travels.


Before the plane took off, I typed: Flying home today. Can we talk when I get back? I sent the message, turned my phone on airplane mode, and closed my eyes.


When I walked out of the airport, it took my eyes a moment to adjust. The sun was bright, almost blinding, the sky a clear, terrible blue. I stood for a moment, blinking rapidly. Heat rose from the concrete, straight to the bone. The taxi driver loaded my suitcase into the trunk. I felt him glance at me as he began driving, debating whether or not to make small talk. I leaned my head against the window, shielding my eyes. The sun was harsh, and I didn’t have much of anything to say at all.