I yank loose the screen door, feeling the rush of humidity, and step out to join him on the balcony. Without turning, he instinctively extends a pack of cigarettes. I miss his hand. It’s too dark to see.
“Are you drunk?” he asks.
I fish out a stick and return the pack.
“After two whiskey and Cokes? I wish.”
I pat around my pants for a lighter, but he has me beat. He raises his disposable to my lips.
My cousin Dennis nods, or at least I think he does, then pivots to face what he was staring at before—the metal bars of our balcony imposed over a vantage of the adjacent hotel’s swimming pool. He is distant now, a far cry from our walk back from dinner. The sidewalk along Sukhumvit Road, one of Bangkok’s red-light districts, was congested with freelance sex workers in heavy makeup and glittering dresses. They smiled and called out as we weaved past. One in particular latched onto my cousin’s arm. He could only giggle, look straight ahead, and try to keep moving as if there wasn’t a 5-foot-something woman anchoring him in place. I could tell, by the way he grinned afterwards, he enjoyed the attention. A decade ago, before his body thickened from weightlifting, before he traded anime T-shirts for polos, he walked down this same street undisturbed. I was the one accosted then.
“Trip’s almost over,” my cousin whispers, seemingly to himself.
Behind us, through the screen door, an unfamiliar voice curses in Cantonese. My cousin’s friend, Edwin, has spent the last few nights on the couch glued to his phone, cycling through political commentary videos on YouTube. These videos are always loud, angry, and chock-full of the phrase, 屌你老母(diu lei lo mo, fuck your mother). But not just anyone’s 老母. It’s the police officers’ 老母. Goverment officials’ 老母. Chief Executive of Hong Kong’s 老母.
It is November 2019, and over in Hong Kong, our home, an election is taking place. A critical one, my cousin tells me. Because whereas in the months before, the main venue for making one’s political opinion known was on the literal streets, by way of protests, now the pro-democracy camp and the pro-establishment can at last settle things through legally recognized means, through votes and ballot boxes and the will of the people.
This entire trip, Dennis and Edwin having been squirming. When we booked our tickets, they had mixed up the date of the election. By being outside the city, where they can’t cast their votes, aren’t they betraying their fellow protesters? That’s what they believe, and no amount of night markets, massages, and mango sticky rice could help them forget. Currently, the results are trickling in, and much to their relief, the pro-democracy candidates seem to be winning without them.
Somewhere along the line, he started cursing at images of government officials on the evening news.
My parents uprooted me to Canada when I was eight. Every other summer, I’d fly back to Hong Kong to visit family, and the issues that plagued my cousin and I over those trips were much simpler. Which Internet cafe will we hit up next? Which fast food franchise are we feeling? Which model kit do we save our spending money on? To some extent, these are still the questions I have whenever I find myself in Hong Kong. My cousin, on the other hand, has long outgrown them. Somewhere along the line, he started cursing at images of government officials on the evening news. He stopped consuming the movies of Jackie Chan, Stephen Chow, or anyone in support of the Chinese Communist Party.
I’ve been searching for the right opportunity—and the right words—to bring this up with my cousin, and with him returning to Hong Kong tomorrow, this seems as good a time as any.
“By the way,” I say, steeling myself for the storm to come, “your mom asked me to speak to you.”
In an instant, the air between us goes cold.
“Of course she did.”
A tube of ash has erected on the end of his cigarette. I grab the plastic bottle which I’ve been keeping around as an ash tray, unscrew the cap, and place it before him on the railing. He taps his cigarette against the mouth. A dark clump falls through and dissipates into the darker water.
“She’s worried you’re out throwing bricks.”
“Have you thrown bricks?”
Dennis remains silent for a long time. “No,” he finally says. “I just helped pry them up.”
“What, with your bare hands?”
“I had gloves. We all did. Everyone helped.”
Others form lanes of human conveyer belts and pass the bricks along until they reach the frontlines.
I’ve seen the footage. Masses of protesters crouched over, disassembling public sidewalks by peeling brick after brick from the mortar. Others form lanes of human conveyer belts and pass the bricks along until they reach the frontlines. I imagine my cousin’s little brother joining in. He’s fourteen years old, and he’s on his knees, jamming his long, skinny fingers into the cracks in the pavement.
“Did your brother help too?”
He shakes his head. “Didn’t let him. Made him stay in school. He’s a smart kid—got a bright future ahead.”
“If it’s not okay for him to go out and do this stuff,” I say, in as neutral a tone as I can, “why is it okay for you?”
“If I didn’t have my brother, do you think I’d really give a shit what happens to Hong Kong? I’d leave. Like you.”
“Somebody was killed earlier this month, right?” A bystander. An old man. Nailed in the head by a stray brick. “I’m just not sure you’d want that on your conscience.”
“You think I don’t understand the stakes?” My cousin brings his fist down on the rail so hard he almost topples the bottle of ashes and cigarette butts. He turns to me. I can’t make out his expression, but I assume his brows are furrowed, his face hard. “You’re the one that doesn’t understand. You weren’t here. You were in Canada, where your biggest concern was what cocktail to drink next.”
“Yes, you’re right. Maybe I—"
“Forget it. I thought you were on our side.”
“It’s not about sides. It’s about doing this smart. Not landing in jail. You must see why your mother worries. You’re not dense.”
“She’s worried I’ll lose my job. That I’ll stop bringing food to the table.”
“You know that’s not it.”
He goes quiet. I’m not sure if this means he’s considering what I’ve said, or if he’s decided not to waste another breath. Inside our suite, Edwin must still be watching his videos, because our lull is punctuated by strange sound effects coming from the other side of the glass.
“Your mom would rather discuss this with you herself,” I say, “but she knows your temper. She cried in front of me.”
I let my eyes drift away to give him space. Down in the swimming pool, a white couple are splashing one another. In this heat, the water ought to be quite refreshing. I wish our hotel had a pool.
“If jail’s the price I gotta pay,” he suddenly says, voice flat, “I’ll pay.”
Couple years earlier, back when Dennis was still in university and had time to himself, he and I played this online shooter. It was how we spent time together from an ocean apart. In four-man squads, you parachute down to a big island, scavenge for weapons, and battle to be the last squad standing. We played on the Chinese server; that way, he wouldn’t be able to use lag as an excuse for his inevitable deaths. At one point, he became obsessed with this meme, of a Western YouTuber yelling to Mainland Chinese players, “Taiwan number one! China number two!” I didn’t see the humour in a white man faking a Taiwanese accent, poking fun at politics he probably understood little about. But to my cousin, it was the greatest punchline of the century.
We load into a match, and my cousin tries to pull the same joke on our two squadmates. The strangers don’t take kindly to it. “屌你老母,” they both take turns shouting in Mandarin. Seconds after we land, one of them finds a shotgun, runs up to my cousin, and blasts him. I hear him cackling over the mic, bowled over in laughter. I’ve never heard him laugh so hard. I get my hands on only a peashooter of a pistol, but I’m a good shot. While the two Chinese players stand over my cousin’s dead body, still taunting him, I take aim and drop one of them with two rapid bullets to the head. The other chases me, but I loop around a house and manage to maneuver behind him. Half a magazine later, he drops too. Within the span of minutes, our four-man squad dwindles down to only me.
“Look what you’ve done,” I say to my cousin, a little annoyed. Their corpses lay around me. Surely someone has heard the shots. Other teams will make their way over soon. “What am I supposed to do now?”
His laughs have become hysterical sobs, and in between, he sucks down enough air to tell me, “You should keep playing.”
But he’s family. I can’t bring myself to leave him behind. So I do the only thing I can—pull the pin of a grenade and blow myself up.