Christmas is in three days, but we haven’t talked in months. Four months, to be exact. Ten, to be approximate. Should I count from the moment you left or the moment you decided to?
It was the end of August last year when you went away. The airport was packed. I remember the scramble for documents and the nervous cross-checking of lists. The joy of new adventures tainted by the parting of ways. There were other students with their families, some of them our old classmates. “Off to a new start”, they said. Time for our real lives to begin. They were too excited to be tactful, too eager to realize I was standing next to you. That by default, my life wasn’t real. That the 24-hour journey from Mauritius to Toronto was your ticket to freedom and immobility was my sentence. From the way you talked, our seabound island was Alcatraz: that made me the only prisoner. The car ride after dropping you off was suffocating. Mom and Dad got restless, so we pulled over and stared at the planes. We didn’t talk, and I couldn’t see their faces. We were all looking up, our eyes quietly following the blinking lights in the sky. Even from that distance, the sound of takeoff was deafening. When will I get to fly away?
Two days till Christmas and I know that Mom loves you more. She’s been trying to reach you but you don’t answer. Guess you’re busy. She keeps calling. She blames her phone, for its cracked screen, and slow response. She really needs a new one, but she wants to cut back on “unnecessary” expenses. I tell her you belong to this category and she slaps me across the face. This is all your fault. You’re not even here, why is she defending you?
Dad sees the slap, but as usual, he doesn’t say anything. He never does, right? Never gets involved in petty arguments, like a bystander in his own family. He lets “the women” deal with each other. Still, I always had the feeling he quietly sided with you. Case in point: once you’d made your decision, nothing would stop him from supporting you. Not the prospect of separation. Not even the loan. You would go to the other end of the world because home couldn’t give you what you needed. I remember the day you announced you needed an international degree; you came prepared, mapping out your life plan to us. You listed so many reasons my brain started tuning you out. You had that look on your face, the one Mom calls “driven”. It was sickening. When it comes to money, Dad always has the last word—the only time he gets involved. “We only have enough to send one of you abroad.” That was enough to settle it. Bullshit. Do you really need that fancy degree?
Sometimes in the shower, I remember the confrontation we had after this discussion. As I massage my scalp, I mutter new irrefutable arguments. Instead of you’re unfair and what about me I should’ve said something objective, something your scientific mind would not sneer at. Maybe investing in both of us would be less risky. You being a better student does not make me a bad one. You deserving more does not mean I deserve nothing. It was too easy for you to blame it all on my jealousy, and not on your selfishness. At the time, my arguments were like seeds, they had yet to sprout so you dug them up. The replies flourished smoothly from your mouth, disgustingly sweet with a poisonous undertone. Under the scalding water, different arguments germinate in my head but it’s too late now. They cannot be reaped so they rot. Have you poisoned my mind?
There was half a year to go through between your decision and your departure. Half a gap year meant six agonizing months of tiptoeing around each other. Even the mandatory good morning and goodnight felt too robotic. Your very presence bothered me. It was like the house walls were slowly closing in on me when you were in my vicinity. So I made sure I didn’t see you. Predicted your moves and did the opposite. Tried to be one step ahead. Whatever I was doing, I liked to think it was the opposite of shadowing you. I counted down the days and when your plane left, I blocked you everywhere. Never thought I’d ghost my own sister. If you ask me, it’s quite a feat. I’ve never been that meticulous before. See the dedication. Who’s driven now?
Two days till Christmas still, and Mom won’t talk to me, so I go out and try to see what you’re missing this year. The flamboyant trees are still in bloom: the flowers have been burning red since November. Soon, they’ll fall and the trees will be back to their usual nakedness: flowerless, bland and ordinary. I think of the postcard you brought with you, of the idyllic blooming flamboyant on it: the version of the island we show to tourists. I’m guessing you told your friends about them, but “flaming tree” doesn’t sound as enchanting as flamboyant. Is there really any way to make them picture the fire in those flowering branches?
The hawkers are still on the main street, most of them between the bank and the kebab place. They always multiply around the merriest time of year. As I walk past them, they launch into a chorus of Mamzel! Mamzel! Most of them are doing demonstrations with plastic toys. Here, is a pull-back Ferrari car. There, a battery-powered little dog. It barks every three steps. From its cheap fluorescent colour, I know the battery will run out within a day, just long enough for a kid to have their Christmas fun. The fruit seller is also here, selling lychees “so sweet their juice syrups when it drips.” I bet the hawkers aren’t as entertaining in Toronto if you even have them. Do you ever miss our streets?
Christmas eve. The real fun begins. Today’s dinner is with Mom’s side of the family, as always. Tomorrow will be Dad’s turn. I remember how Auntie Susila kept saying our little country was too small for you, that you needed a big place to achieve great things. Yet, it wasn’t too small for you to grow up in! At dinner, I smile to her while she asks what you’ve been up to. Everyone’s been asking for updates about you. They don’t even bother to ask how I’m doing first, because there’s no need to. There is never any need to. You are the one with an interesting life, while I am still here. Uncle Lovish brought mangoes, straight from his yard. Remember his bats? I do. Holidays at his place were always special. When we were small, too little for the comparisons to affect us, we’d stay over at his place. Once, he let us stay awake past curfew. He was going to scare some bats away from his mango tree. He let us join. Of course, we had to, no eight-year-old would refuse! We gathered our weapons because we were adventurers: we were bat hunters, mango saviours. I grabbed a watch while you got your makeshift blowgun. A tense walk to the balcony, our little shoulders stiff with anticipation. The thrill we felt when we finally spotted a bat, hanging upside down from a thick branch. Uncle Lovish aiming his trusty slingshot as he gestured for us to stay quiet. The bat eventually flew away, and we were sent back to our room. Looking back, it feels like we didn’t sleep at all that night. Our adrenalin had shot through the roof, and we lay awake all night making plans for our future hunting adventures. We still slept in the same bed, back then. I bet you don’t remember. I always recall that stuff better than you. How is it that you’re more intelligent?
Tonight, the mangoes are succulent. Tender, easy to bite into with not much fibre. The juice drips down my chin and though I wipe it off, a sticky trail clings to my skin. It makes me think of our everlasting argument about how to eat mangoes. I still think mangoes should be eaten ripe and sweet, fresh off the tree. You, ever in a rush, like green mangoes–pickled, with salt and chilli. You can’t wait for them to be in season. You never wait. It’s funny though, the only race I ever won against you was at birth. Everyone keeps on forgetting I’m older. Granted, only by ten minutes. It still counts. We used to joke that you’re so competitive you could’ve eaten me in the womb. You might be taller, but that’s not the point. I was born first. Why are you always ahead of me?
The night before Christmas, I dream of your ghost haunting me. I feel like Scrooge, except that I’m the one who got wronged by the ghost. In my dream, you think I’m too stubborn. I think you’re wrong. You should’ve seen your ghost: pale and skinny like you. This dream feels long, it drains the life out of me. I keep waking up, each time more tired than before. No matter how many times I convince myself to just close my eyes, and hope the nightmare is over, the torture goes on. A night of interruptions is more tiring than a sleepless night. Can’t you give me a break?
It’s Christmas morning and I catch my reflection in the mirror; I thought it was your ghost. Same pointy chin, same rectangular forehead, same stupid eyebrows verging on a unibrow. My reflection does look like you, only with no life in the eyes. Dark circles under the eyes, like the rotten patch on an overly ripe mango. Are we twins or alter egos?
I go into the living room and mom is rejoiced: you finally responded. The world doesn’t stop, even when I sleep. Your world will never stop. She’s already looking forward to when you come back. She doesn’t know when, but someday for sure. I know how these reunions go. You will bring back a suitcase full of snacks, the kind we see in the movies. Bribe our nieces and nephews with candy. Charm the cousins with trinkets. We’ll host a great dinner, and all the uncles and aunties will finally get to ask you directly how you’ve been doing. For me, it’ll be a temporary break from being your mediator. Mom will cook you any dish you request, and after that, we’ll still eat out every night because a reunion has to be celebrated. Mom will spoil you, not letting you do any chores. You’ll be the princess. Does that make me your maid?
We must seem so small when viewed from Toronto. Heck, the whole of Mauritius must look microscopic! I guess you’re getting the authentic white Christmas experience. The family’s been watching those feel-good Christmas movies. Mom says the snow makes her think of you. She fantasizes about your wintery adventures. Maybe you’ll find out where you really belong. Maybe you’ll find your love over there, in the snowy country. Magical, meet-cute, merry and mellow. Call it what you want. How does it feel to live in a movie?
It’s Christmas and the neighbours are drunk and their laughter is loud and the beaches are crowded and a new round of gift-giving is about to start. Christmas hasn’t changed. It still smells like lychee and tastes like mango. Why, then, does it feel different without you?
Make no mistake, I am holding on to my rage. It’s the only thing I have that you don’t. I pick up the phone. Type in one message, making sure to put a period at the end. I block you again after it’s sent.
 “Miss” in Mauritian Creole.
Tanya Ng Cheong is a Chinese-Mauritian writer and undergraduate student at the University of Toronto Scarborough, where she studies English and Journalism. She was born and raised in Mauritius, where she learned to embrace both her identity as an islander and her Chinese (Hakka) heritage. She mostly writes short fiction.
Arthur Dennyson Hamdani is a third-year student at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Born and raised in Indonesia, he is an illustrator, photographer, and aspiring journalist. Alongside his Journalism major, he is an illustrator at The Varsity, UofT’s newspaper, and The Strand, Victoria College’s student publication. His primary focus is on portraits and animals and he specializes in graphite, oil paint, and digital art. Extending his art journey from high school, Arthur experiments with different styles and mediums as he expands his portfolio. He had a handful of works featured in various virtual exhibitions during the pandemic, ranging from art clubs to student-led advocacy groups. Check out more of Arthur’s works on his website and Instagram (@artdennyson).