Yucheng Che

Following is an excerpt from the fifth entry of a series of letters addressing my mother’s question: “Did I raise you right” on a trip back home to Westwood, Los Angeles, from Irvine during the short winter break splitting the academic year in half and starting a new calendar year (2022–23). The car ride resulted in an admission that my parents were getting divorced: my mom would get my sister for the rest of her high school education, to be displaced from friends and curriculum. My dad would move back to our old home in Rancho Santa Margarita. Grappling with different scales of distance between myself and ideas of home, friendship, and generational divides proves difficult to approach as I spend more and more time away from family here on the East Coast.

“Hyuma!” I had not seen him since the quasi- hallucinogenic 3 year experience that culminated in an experiment of how long we could stay in a singular room that we collectively referred to as high school. He looked well. His dark green beanie matched his navy blue jean jacket that he had thrown over the back of his chair. His broad shoulders filled out his pale brown T-shirt. Back at Pali, under the cold gray mornings, piercingly blue lunchtimes, and unbearably drowsy afternoons, we used to like to tease him lightheartedly that we could “Definitely beat [him] up,” knowing the combined efforts of all 12 of us would have never even stood a chance. I had received a text only 15 minutes prior and a minute after I had woken up along the lines of, “How’s it going?” “Back in L.A.?” which escalated quickly to a meeting at a local cafe as a consequence of not having anything planned on this particular Tuesday.

As he stood up to greet me, I was immediately taken aback by his height, a common occurrence in our friend group. The few and far in between times that we saw each other was caused by the gradual dissolution of our group chats, each one going radio silent after the other. We had all gone our separate ways post the pandemic robbing us of prom, graduation, and most important of all, a proper goodbye. Palm to palm, hand to back and we sat down again. “This semester has been the toughest so far,” I began, answering his text inquiry about my time at RISD. On and on I went, recounting memories faded from liquor and affirming his suspicions that small schools meant that everyone knew all too much about everyone else. I told him about the time I wandered off and laid on the cold concrete sidewalk in front of Den Dens for half an hour: under the streetlights that gessoed the night sky black, recounting ridiculous memories my friends at school and I had made just the week prior. I told him about the time our mutual friend Cashin and I had the same experience just 1000 miles apart, consoling each other out on the street, making sure no one was around to hear our conversations about rejecting romantic confessions and the particular weight it had on our conscience. (Cashin’s somehow heavier than my own in all honesty) I told him about current and past crushes and current and past projects and when I finished telling him all the adventures that I had had, he paused and said,

“Me too, I’ve had a tough year too. Arianna moved to New York for her banking job and our relationship entered a gray area. I had a great time with her in New York just before I came home from Middlebury and neither of us wanted to end things. I’m thinking of switching majors. Physics is just too theoretical.”

“How so?”

“Well I just don’t see myself standing at a chalkboard writing fiction all day. Don’t get me wrong, some people love that, but after this year, I don’t think I can handle it. I’ve been looking into banking while I was with Arianna in New York and that isn’t it for me either. On top of that, I’ve had to deal with this:”

Lifting his beanie slightly, he showed me the few weak strands of hair that stuck up on his bare scalp, slowly, it dawned on me the severity of that statement, “I’ve had a tough year too.” He was sugarcoating it. I wondered how many times he had to do this before, and felt guilty that I was making him do it again. I failed to hide the disbelief and then sadness and then shame on my face as he consoled me,

“I was super lucky. I found out during a routine check-up. It really isn’t that bad, honestly. The doctor told me that if you ever got cancer, this is the one you’d want to get.”


“I just need to go through treatments once every few weeks and keep my body in shape and I’ll get through this. It's just been a hard time for me, my room at school doesn’t get much light.” He took his pen and drew on the napkin the little rectangles, bed, table, door, and hallway and the room unfolded in front of us. Again, he starts,

“No light comes in or out, night bleeds into day, and day bleeds into night. I remember feeling like I could deal with loneliness in freshman year, but even then, in that loneliness, I still had the guys online and our 4am chats and valorant games and among us,” he said, both of us laughing a little at the thought of the impossible time in our lives when we flew across the country just to sit in our rooms on our computers. “I had never been so close to…” he trailed off and both of us sat in silence for a little while.

Hey mom.

You lost your best friend to cancer recently. I remember the day you rushed out: phone to ear sitting in your car in our garage for an hour, returning worn, weary, and thin, eyes red, cheeks puffy and told me to come close. “Mary died,” you whispered. “I’m so sorry mom,” I whispered back and gave you a long hug. That was it. You went up the stairs to change into your scrubs and go to work for the day and I sat back in my chair to finish my cereal.

It’s pathetic how little I know of your grief. How little I understand of your loss. I can still picture her face, sharp defined cheekbones and the folds around her eyes and corners of her mouth, skin stretching to accommodate the happiness that she brought to your life, her blazing scarlet red hair against her shining black leather jacket. That was how she wanted to be remembered, you told me. But something is missing. Something is wrong with me. I realize that I missed the lesson in preschool where they taught us how to feel what others felt on a level that mattered. (They call it empathy) Compassion, even, eludes me and I stand in the embrace confused and bewildered. And in that moment in the doorway, I couldn’t feel what you felt, the loss of your best friend doesn’t hurt me as much as it should, as much as you wanted me to feel, and my hug feels like a betrayal.

You don’t remember this, or maybe you do, but when I was 4 years old, in our apartment in Irvine, on the bed with the Pine tree bed sheets: memories faded with time, during our conversation about 2x2 having the same answer as 2+2 and 2 squared,  you told me that one day you and dad and gon gon and po po would be dead and it would be just me and Emily against the world. And you asked me what I would do. You knew that I knew that death was an absolute, a permanent quiet that no matter how hard I screamed or shouted, kicked or cried, they would only respond in silence, but you asked that question anyway. What else was I supposed to do but cry faced with that reality at that age working on math homework?

I still don’t have an answer for you.

You laughed.

Life moves on too fast sometimes. So fast that the grief has to catch up.

The cafe was more populated now, people had trickled in to catch their morning fix of lactose free, caffeine rich, vegan liquid energy that got 90024 through 11 A.M. on Tuesdays.

“Is it an LA thing?”

“Is what an LA thing?”

“Friends that I’ve made in college, I don’t think I would be this comfortable with talking to after so long not seeing them, but it feels like we talked just yesterday, even though the last time we did was probably 2 years ago.”

I didn’t share the sentiment, but it was flattering,

“It's because we have something that you’ll never find at school.”

“What’s that?” Hyuma said with a puzzled look.

“Love <3”

I winked and leaned in, puckering my lips and scrunching my face up, pretending to go in for a kiss. I laughed and he laughed. We picked up our matcha tea that was completely watered down now by the few ice cubes in the paper cups and our jackets and walked out the front door.

Yucheng Che refuses to write a bio before his letters reach his parents.