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The Effect of Time on Collective Consciousness

We’d video-game or anime-binge or dream aloud about a future as bright as our childhoods.

This piece is part of the Love Letters notebook, which features art by Ali El-Chaer.

Emily was the one who reached out to all of us, our circle of childhood friends. Through social media and not at the new sushi bar, which we’d all been to and discovered was run by Chinese people like us. This had made it seem less authentic, though the sushi didn’t suck. All of us had just graduated from college, except for Kevin, who was in his last year studying IT. We were chilling, life was good, or at least that’s what we told each other when Emily arranged a Zoom call.

We caught up first—family matters (Kevin and Brian’s dad was totally bald now), vaccinations (everyone had gotten theirs), TV shows (Brian was watching Avatar: The Last Airbender for the third time)—and we got used to calling Pandora by her new name.

None of us knew why she had discarded her birth name. She even looked like a completely new person. A pink highlight in her black bob. Rings gleaming on her fingers. A few of us had kept in touch, but Pandora? She’d disappeared ten years ago. 

“The other day it really hit me how long it’s been,” Emily said. “We were in middle school last time we talked! How’ve you been?”

Pandora looked away from her screen and laughed in the way some people laugh when they make mistakes. We had all been waiting for her answer (except Kevin, who was playing League of Legends). She was the great mystery of our childhoods; her family never moved away, but one day they suddenly stopped hanging out with the rest of the Chinese immigrants in our suburb.

“It’s a long story,” Pandora replied, “but basically my parents wanted my life to look a certain way, and I recently realized that’s not what I wanted.” She smiled shyly.

It was an unsatisfying answer.

But Kevin, his mouse still clicking away, said, “I know what you mean. Remember I played tennis?”

“Yeah,” Pandora said. “You were quite good at it.”

“My dad thought so too, so he sent me off to S College for tennis.”

“Where?” she asked.

“Exactly. I transferred out.” He squinted, focusing on his game again. “I’m just expressing solidarity—like I get that parental pressure.”

We noticed Brian untense his jaw. What Pandora didn’t know and nobody would tell her: in Kevin’s sophomore year of college, he overdosed and went to the ER. We heard the news a year after, when their family had been missing in action for a while, and Emily had just broken up with Brian. Brian moved the conversation onward by singing praises about Avatar again. We all  chimed in and reminisced about those Sunday afternoons at Emily’s place. Her parents had a luxurious patio, a grill, and an outdoor fireplace where only adults were allowed. Back then, we’d spent most of our time in front of her Panasonic TV watching Cartoon Network, playing Super Smash Bros, or snacking on sachima and sunflower seeds. James laughed about how we used to tease him with remixes of Team Rocket’s mottos from Pokémon. We apologized, not seriously, since we never meant to hurt each other (and never did). We shared our Nintendo DSs with James when his parents refused to buy one, delivered a collaborative sermon of sorts to Pandora’s mom (an overzealous religious woman) proving short-shorts weren’t scandalous, and helped Brian keep his grades up.

“We should meet up again,” James said wistfully.

Emily nodded with a big smile. All of us were living in the same houses, just a half hour away from each other.

We imagined the sunlight streaming in and setting the room alight. We’d video-game or anime-binge or dream aloud about a future as bright as our childhoods were then.

“We should try,” Pandora said. “And I’ll do my best to stay in touch with all of you this time. I know I should’ve tried harder—”

Emily shushed her kindly. “You didn’t do anything wrong—don’t apologize. We’re here together now, and we have each other’s numbers and everything.”

It wasn’t Pandora’s fault we retreated from each other. The whirlwind of competitive tennis swept Kevin away. James’s parents became estranged but never divorced. Emily started dating her first boy (not Brian). These things didn’t belong in our friendship. 

“I think I need to go,” Brian said. “Have to make dinner.”

We looked at each other, into the cameras. Pandora said, “Yeah, we can end here.”

We wanted to linger longer, but when we looked for threads of the next conversation, they were cut short by our lives beyond the call. The present and past were two separate regions of existence. Our call built a bridge between them, and though we were together now, we were a safe distance apart. 

“Random memory, but,” James said, “do you guys remember how Kevin stored DS game cards in that used mooncake box?”

We laughed. Kevin used to have a clutter of game cards sliding around in that shiny box. He could never find the game he was looking for. Of course we remembered. We remembered everything.