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The White Warehouse

Peter Aupperlee

Ayi once told me that I’d be a good man. In hindsight, the thought of being a man was not quite a fairytale but far from reality; yet, her words meant it would come true. I had been eight years old at the time, but now, at fifteen, I held onto those words tighter than ever. She’d look me in the eyes and say, “Wǒ ài nǐ,” I love you. And if there was one thing about Ayi, she held truth closer than her clutch on the Bible—possibly, she was a prophetess. So, naturally, I engraved her truths into the back of my mind. ​ Truth. Where am I to find it without her? Perhaps I am to do as I was told, to read Scripture, to be a lamb in the field awaiting its shepherd. Perhaps I am to pay attention in church. That, however, I am not doing. In fact, I sit in church doing the exact opposite; I find distraction to be more entertaining. ​ I’m sitting on a bench. The cold-eyed walls reflect a dead glow that hurts to look at, while the ceiling fans circulate a whisper around my shoulders. Ahead of me stands four rows of polished pews whose disappointed vacancy remains a constant from week to week, and the rows behind me are gingerly furnished with a spotless population of church-goers. I can feel their eyes discreetly investigating me above their stuffed smiles and caked faces.   There are eyes all around. Their eyes all sound. ​ As I expected, the morning speaker’s teeth are white. She thanks God for the little things in life like flowers, the sun, and the lake. People in Wisconsin are quite fond of the lakes. ​ She puts out her hand and nods in reflection over God’s faithfulness in these “unprecedented times.” My mind instantly wanders. ​ Suddenly the walls seem a little more interesting. The sanctuary’s new renovation leaves the lingering smell of fresh paint, and the space begins to feel nothing more than a warehouse. A white warehouse, that is—white like Mindy’s teeth, the walls, our skin, the fences in our neighborhoods, and the pages in the little black books in front of us. There’s silence in the prayer, and I hate it. ​ The silence is loud. ​ I probably shouldn’t cross my legs in church, that’s improper. I’m drawing attention to myself. How egocentric of me. Stop it. I’ll put my hands in my pockets. Good idea. No, that wasn’t actually a good idea, I don’t know what I’m talking about. I only got a B- on my English essay, so I really don’t know what I’m talking about.   Stop it. Shhh. ​ When is this going to end? Wow, I’m really not a good Christian, I don’t even like church, I just want it to be over. What kind of Christian thinks that? The little black book sure seems to hate me. When is this going to be over?   “Now please stand and join us in worship.” Finally. ​ I take a second, collect a breath, and stand up. The room quickly fills with the weary wind of what one might call singing. I gather the air to join, yet the second I open my mouth, my bottom lip splits, and a jolt of pain tears through my face. ​ It’s my damn dry lips. ​ I’ve always hated dry lips. It seems as if they’re angry at me for disregarding them; they act in rebellion against my drained, dehydrated body. Bickering and biting back against my guilt-ridden brain, they coil up in umbrage and gossip about me behind my back. I guess they’re the victims of my carelessness. ​ If I had dry lips, Ayi would tell me to drink licorice medicine and a heap-load of water to hydrate. She’d treat me like a patient, putting my legs up on a pillow and feeding me měi wèi tomatoes with cane sugar, only for my lips to remain dryer than the torrid air of Changchun’s six-month winter. For hours, she’d sit at my side while we played “Sorry”—coincidentally losing every round we played. ​ “Bennie, pay attention and sing!” my mother whispered to me, her face red with embarrassment. “You look dead!”   I forgot. I am in church.  ​ I am in church. ​ I need to pay attention. ​ We have been singing for a few minutes now, and I have not sung a single lyric. Our worship team consisted of two elderly white women and a middle-aged white man who stood up front like mannequins in a window, pretending to enjoy the selection of songs we sang nearly every week. I sing a verse or two until I don’t. I guess I just don’t care enough. ​ I’ve always wondered why I was careless yet so particular. I clean my room twice a day but never drink water. I water my plants, but I skip meals. I have a 4.20 GPA, but I can barely make it through a school week. And of course, I go to church every Sunday, but I’m not a good Christian. My head reiterates these facts over and over and over, and it says it on those white pages in the little black book. Some guy a thousand years ago said I was wrong, and he’s right. ​ Or is he? ​ Who is supposed to give me the answer but the one person who happens to be oceans away in some small flat, chipping away at time as time chips at her? ​ Is truth itself fading away?  ​ I need Ayi to tell me.  ​ Tell me, Ayi! ​ Tell me! ​ My thoughts fall all over the church floor like marbles. They clatter and roll to the end of the room, below the feet of my mother, all the way to the white walls. I inhale some dry air as my eyes shoot around the room searching for the little glass balls, but it’s too late. The crime has been committed, and I, the perpetrator, am sentenced to a lifetime of guilt. ​ I stuff the notion that I look criminal in my back pocket, yet the lyrics attempt to pick-pocket me. Nice try.   “The God of ages stepped down from glory. To wear my sin and bear my shame.” ​ My mother’s voice overpasses all those around me. She is singing with passion and honesty while she cries with her hands lifted up; she surely knows some form of truth. Tears of a loving relationship fall down her cheek as wine fell from the cross and into our mouths. God sure did bear her shame. It’s as if she’s in the clouds of heaven, staring straight at the golden gates. ​ Straight at them. Straight. The word dries my mouth. ​ Straight like the vertical line that connects my mom to Jesus. Like the yellow brick road that she follows or the shiny pews she sits in. Like her marriage and eldest son. Like the comfortable relationship with God that I long for or the warming acceptance that I am deprived of. I can only assume this straight-ness would be reassuring. Maybe even enough to make me cry at church. ​ When I was younger, I always wondered how people came to be so spiritual. Ayi, of course, was my prime archetype. She was, in one way or another, my grandmother—a sort of alternate role model for the grandparents I never saw, and knew Jesus almost as well as she knew the truth. She would bike to our apartment four days a week and spend the day cleaning, cooking, and playing games with my brothers and me. Her food was amazing, but I always just saw it as lunch. A lunch where I was forced to eat my entire bowl of rice, or at least “three more big bites.” When we sat down for a meal at our mismatched wooden table and bench, my father would say two prayers: one in English, one in Chinese. Underneath, Ayi would whisper her personal confessions in a subtle mumble. I would sit on the wooden bench and wish I knew what she was saying. It seemed as if she was talking to a friend or relative she hadn’t seen in a while. ​ Her eyes, made of hazelnut chocolate or steaming coffee, told me everything. They were attentive and gentle but full of life. Her smile highlighted the wrinkles on her light brown forehead and the dark spots under her eyes were somehow joyous. She had a serene and lovingly patient presence. ​ In her old age—though still young to me—Ayi wove the few English words she knew into her Chinese vocabulary in order to accommodate my simple mind. ​ “Wow! Hǎo bàng le,” she’d say after I had shown her the unimpressive magic trick I had dramatically performed. “Tài hǎo le! Very good!” ​ I’d smile wider than I can remember, only to do it all over again the next day, awaiting her high-value affirmation. However, there came a day I could await her no more. An ocean had formed between us and time had no mercy. It chipped and chipped and chipped away, until Ayi said to me, “You are the morning sun, and I am old.” ​ But to me, Ayi was still young. She’d forever be the wholesome, noble woman I looked up to. Although our connection stood on the complication of a language barrier, I felt that I knew her more than anyone else in the world. She would giggle alongside my childish jokes and rub my back when I cried. She would gently step into my room after a fight with my brothers and sit next to me. ​ She sat next to me. ​ “Jesus was friends with sinners and tax collectors, so if that’s what he’s actually like, then he would walk into this room and sit next to me and you. He would tell us we’re okay.” ​ I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a friend. My mind can’t wrap itself around the idea that Jesus would sit next to me. Ayi is whom I think of. ​ I guess Ayi was the Jesus I always wanted. She wasn’t a puzzle I needed to put together or a picture I couldn’t quite grasp. I didn’t need a grand epiphany or a mission trip to fully comprehend her certitude. I didn’t have to question her love or acceptance of me; she cared about me and I was sure of it. ​ But Ayi didn’t carry a cross, so what was I missing?  ​ What is the truth? ​ Truth. ​ Truth. ​ Truth. ​ What is the truth? God, tell me the truth! ​ I open my eyes to see the white walls of the church spinning around me. The floor is covered in marbles and the pews are miles away. The little black books are soaring around me, spitting verse after verse into my ears. ​ My mind seems to be broken. ​ I’m just trying to convince myself that these four damn verses in Corinthians and Romans aren’t true. They can’t be true. But then again, why trust myself? I got a B on my English essay! Wow, my hands are really dry, my mouth is really dry, the crack in my lips hurts really bad. I deserve it because I don’t drink water, and that’s morally wrong. I’m morally wrong. Stop it, that’s a lie. Is it though? ​ Truth! ​ Truth! ​ Truth!  ​ Where is the truth? ​ What is the truth? ​ God, tell me! ​ The room falls silent and three words echo across the warehouse.    “Wǒ ài nǐ.”
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